George of the Jungle was on cable recently. It’s one of my favorite comedies. Brendan Fraser running around in a loincloth is a big part of why I enjoy it, but the humor is pretty good too. And ultimately, if the story doesn’t hold up, then it really isn’t worth watching it again. About halfway through the movie, Ursula has brought George back to San Francisco with her. As they are walking down a city street, the voiceover narrator says, “Every story has one coincidence and we have a big one” or words to that effect. The coincidence is that Ursula’s mother is driving down the street at the same time and sees her daughter with George, who is most definitely not her fiancé. This puts into motion a large complication for the second half of the movie.
It started me thinking. Was the narrator right? Does every story have a coincidence in it? Aren’t we told it’s never good to use coincidences in our plots? Coincidence does happen in life, so it would seem logical to incorporate it. So why doesn’t it work? Is there a right way to use coincidence in a story?
Not every story uses coincidence, which, overall, I believe is a good thing. Not because coincidences are inherently bad, but because writers often use them badly in their plots. Coincidence never works when it’s used to help the main character. The most common offense of this nature is when the character overhears important, critical information that will help them achieve success. The character doesn’t deserve to win because they have made no effort towards achieving their goal. It’s just handed to them. However, if the character puts himself into a situation so he can purposefully overhear a conversation, then that’s a plan, not a coincidence. The character bugs an office, or sits in a booth at a restaurant next to the couple talking—it shows thought and action on his part. He has earned the right to find out at least part of what he’s after through his efforts.
Coincidence works only when it gets the character into more trouble. The main character is ditching school and runs into the principal who happens to be making a Starbucks run. The character sees her boyfriend buying a beautiful necklace, which she thinks is meant for her, but later sees it around her rival’s neck. If you use coincidence to make more trouble, rather than helping the character, then it can work in your story.
I have one caveat about coincidence causing trouble. Never use it to have the main character overhear a conversation in which she misinterprets what she hears so that she thinks the guy she likes isn’t interested in her. Romances have used this device so often that it is now a cliché.
So, in retrospect, I think George’s narrator was partly right. Stories can have one coincidence if, like in George’s case, it gets the character into more trouble. Ursula’s mother warns George away from her daughter or she will remove his excuse for wearing a loincloth. There’s something about that loincloth…
© Anna-Maria Crum 2012