Script Coverage Chronicles – September 2016: When Coincidence Actually Works In Screenplays

In a prior blog (December 2015), I talked about avoiding coincidence in screenplays. I opined that 95% of the time, your story is better off if you take the coincidences out. 

But what about the other 5% of the time? 

There are a few situations in which the use of a coincidence may be the best way to go. Here are three of them:

1. To Conserve Characters And Screen Time

To explain this one, I’m going to take an example from an episode of the TV drama Madam Secretary -- a show that uses coincidence unusually well. 

In a setup scene, Tea Leoni’s character, the U.S. Secretary of State, talks to a distraught father about his daughter who has ended up in a cult.  Tim Daly’s character, the Secretary of State’s husband, is sent to talk to the head of this cult and hopefully save the daughter and everyone else in it.  When Tim Daly’s character arrives at the gates of this cult, the person among hundreds of residents who comes out to greet him is the daughter mentioned in the earlier scene. 

Is this a coincidence?  Sure it is. Does it work?  Yes.

The writer could have shown Tim Daly’s character asking for the daughter or looking around for her.  That would be less coincidental. 

But it would add a bunch of screen time that isn’t particularly dramatic. 

And having someone else come to the gate would have added an additional speaking part, one with no connection to the personal drama previously set up.

It’s always a judgment call, but sometimes coincidence is just the most efficient way to tell a story.

2. When Coincidence Adds So Much To The Drama That It’s Worth The Risk

Once again, I’m going to take an example from Madam Secretary, a show that uses coincidence over and over and not only gets away with it but does great things with it.  How?  The coincidences employed always lead to huge conflict and drama.

The big ongoing coincidence in the show is that the Secretary of State’s husband, a secret agent, is often sent on missions that coincide with the Secretary of State’s most pressing issues.  The writers work to explain how this comes about, but the truth is it’s a huge coincidence that, in a government as large as the U.S. with so many agents from various agencies available, that the Secretary of State’s husband is routinely the one best suited to go on these missions.

The reason it works is this: The presence of the husband on these missions always ends up putting this married couple in extremely awkward positions, having to balance their public lives with their marriage and family.  Without the coincidences employed, this level of external and internal conflict simply wouldn’t be possible.

The bottom line is:  In the few instances where coincidence makes a story that much more dramatic, don’t be afraid to go with it. 

But you better deliver on the drama.

3. When Removing a Coincidence Will Ruin What’s Already Working

I think a lot of writers have bought into the “cult of revision” so much that they believe further changes can only help a screenplay.  While a willingness to reinvent is a must-have quality for a screenwriter, it’s important to know when you shouldn’t tear things down.

It’s extremely difficult to come up with story elements that appeal to a wide audience.  When the choices you’ve made are largely working, sometimes you’ve got to make a judgment call not to mess with them.  Yeah, you’re supposed to kill your babies, right?  Not always.  You don’t want to kill your best babies unnecessarily.

So let’s imagine that your script has been getting praised for its comedy but a producer takes issue with a particular coincidence.  Coincidences are easy notes for producers to make; they’re easy to spot and easy to explain. So that’s the note you get: Such and such is a coincidence. 

You sit down to write around it, and it’s going to change quite a few elements; you’re going to have to redo several scenes everybody likes. 

I’m not talking about the two types of coincidence above, which do more good than harm.  This hypothetical imagines a coincidence that is there only for convenience, to – awkwardly – bridge one part of your story to another.

So should you always find a way to make that change?


In an ideal world if you had unlimited time and resources, all writers should always find a way to write around this kind of coincidence.  But writers have to write in the real world. 

And that means realizing that some things aren’t worth changing. 

Will your producer get annoyed that you didn’t take the note? 


Will that producer be way more upset if in trying to extract the coincidence you muck up the really funny parts?