Did you know that at the start of light element production in the universe, the mass density and the expansion rate were in balance by 16 orders of magnitude? And that we needed this to be true in order for us to exist? We need a galaxy that contains the debris from exploded supernovae, and time for those debris to collect into a solar system with heavy elements -- because we're made from those elements.
Man, what an amazing coincidence. What are the odds of that happening? Coincidence. It's a screenwriter's stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it's been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It's the essence of the 'what if.' Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It's a very necessary dramatic tool. But use even just a little too much and you engender that deadly, irrevocable indictment: "I dunno... it just felt too... contrived."
Ugh. The 'c' word. Of course it's contrived, it's a story. But the trick is to not have it seem contrived.
One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate -- if it must be present -- should always favour the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero's gun jams, it's called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain's gun jams, it's called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.
Walter Parkes (screenwriter and co-president of Amblin and DreamWorks) has made a clever refinement to this rule. If the hero must -- due to the needs of the story -- catch a break, at least don't let it happen at the best possible moment. Make it happen at the worse possible moment.
For example: Let's say our hero needs to get a clue to the identity of a killer. He's run out of options, he's at the end of his rope, ready to give up -- and then suddenly the clue is presented to him. That lands just like what it is: a lucky break. Good thing the screenwriter provided that clue in time, or our hero would be standing around with nothing to do. It doesn't work because the help comes at the best possible time, right when our hero needs it. It's a beneficial coincidence, and so the story 'feels' contrived.
But now let's say our hero is in the middle of a con of the villain. The clue arrives -- and in getting it, the hero's cover is blown, the con revealed. The hero now has gained something -- a lead to the killer -- but it has come at a cost. The audience barely notices the coincidence because it came at the worst possible moment, not the best. The hero has to deal with the negative ramifications of the happenstance, and so the 'lucky break' is masked.
There are exceptions, of course, to these concerns about coincidence. One group perhaps should be noted. There are films where coincidence almost becomes a character, part of the conceit of the story. Instead of hiding the odd and ironic flukes and coincidences, the plot revels in them. Fate takes a heavy hand in the course of things, often to comic effect. Some good examples of this technique include WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, FORREST GUMP, and AFTER HOURS.
But for the most part, screenwriters go to great lengths to minimize reality-harming coincidences, or avoid them altogether.
One really good way to do this is to focus on the story's 'initial conditions' (to borrow another term from cosmological science).The initial conditions of a story are those situations and character wants that are in place just as the story begins. To illustrate, let's do a little model. Here's our set-up:
(character A wants to get item X) (character B wants to get item X) (character C has item X, and really hates A) (character D is in love with B)
Now, if the initial conditions are set properly, all you need to do is add one more element: Time. Time allows the characters to take action according to how they've been designed, and voila, the story happens. As long as the characters act according to their desires, and as long as those desires are rational -- Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs' is a good model -- the story will hum along, and not feel contrived. (Simply put, the 'Hierarchy of Needs' states that there is an order to which needs a person will logically satisfy. First food, then shelter, then companionship, etc., on up the hierarchy.)
So, with the passage of time, let's see how our 'initial conditions' evolve for our little mini-drama. Eventually:
(B steals X) (A sleeps with B to get X) (C loses X) (D is jealous of A)
Okay. Now, some more time passes: (A successfully gets X) (B feels used) (C now vows to kill A) (D is disillusioned)
A little later: (A dies) (C gets X back, but at what cost?) (B and D reconcile, live happily ever after)
You get the idea. In this model, the initial conditions were set to create unfolding situations -- without the addition of any new elements.
Remember, as time passes, so do needs increase, and so action is taken. In this sense, the root of all action is time. The mark of a bad screenplay is when the initial conditions do not change, change very little, change in unsatisfying ways, or change in such a way so as to hit a dead-end. Because when the dead-end comes, coincidence rears its ugly head. While it is acceptable to introduce some 'new' elements, it is not as satisfying as watching the known elements play out.
And add too many new elements (coincidences) and you're back lost in the trackless lands of contrivance. Hasta la vista, baby.
(As an aside... I think people instinctively accept stories that are clearly motivated by the passage of time. The man stranded in the desert is a good example. If he doesn't find water soon, he'll die. The longer it takes, the worse it gets. There is something fundamental about 'time passage' drama that makes it, I believe, universal.) Okay, so there are ways to avoid coincidences. Sometimes, you just have to have lucky breaks happen. But they can't seem like lucky breaks. And so finally we arrive at the title of this column, the Anthropic Principal. It's the best damn coincidence-killer in the galaxy.
In 1961, Dicke, a cosmological scientist, pioneered the anthropic principal to deal with the incredible coincidences that allow our presence in a galaxy that seems perfectly tailored to our existence. From the stable energy state of the electron to the precise level of the weak nuclear force that allows stars to shine, we live in a universe of variables where only a slight change would cause all reality to literally fall apart. Could we really be so lucky? The anthropic principle simply points out that unless those special conditions existed, we would not be here to wonder at our good fortune. It presumes the possible existence of many other universes -- but in those worlds, the conditions don't exist for people. We're not there because we can't be there. We're here because we can be here.
How things are depend on how things are not.
Another example may help clarity. What are the odds that, it all the millions of galaxies and trillions of planets in this universe, intelligent life only exists here on earth? That we're it? After all, life happened here, and there are trillions of other chances. It makes no sense that we're the only one! Or does it? The anthropic principle forces a change in perspective. It points out that, if there is just one planet out of the multitudes that has life on it, it is certain that those people would presume they couldn't be the only one -- that the odds would be way too high! Okay, so that's interesting. But how can this be used for screenwriting? It's really, really cool. What the anthropic principle does is let you turn your coincidences into inevitabilities. You embed the needed story coincidence in the set-up, so not only does the coincidence need to happen, in some cases it must happen. When the coincidental event springs from the same action that created the need for the coincidence, the coincidence is killed. I know that sounds a little esoteric and weird, so let's do an example. CUT TO:
Our hero, being chased and shot at by bad guys. He's being hunted down -- on a small island, with few places to hide. His doom is all but inevitable. He makes to a beach and -- Look, there's a boat! With the engine running! Escape and salvation!
Seems pretty contrived, and unsatisfying. A lucky break, for the benefit of moving the story forward. But as the screenwriter, you have to get him off that island, or the film dies. What to do?
The anthropic principle would ask, why is he being chased to begin with? Well, there are bad guys there. Okay, so how did they get there? By boat. So establish that because of the pursuit of this guy, a boat has reached the island. When the hero locates the boat, now, it seems anything but contrived -- the boat had to be there, or he wouldn't be being chased to begin with!
Here's another example, from BODY HEAT, a masterfully-crafted film. It's pretty darn lucky that Matty Walker just happens to seduce a lawyer who just happens to have had a run-in with a judge, so the judge examines the will and finds the tiny flaw that gives Matty all the money. How could she count on that sequence of events? Totally implausible. But then we find -- along with Ned -- that Matty knew of Ned's legal problem before they ever met. That it was, in fact, the reason they'd met. The coincidence wasn't a coincidence at all. The whole thing was inevitable. What a sublime screen moment! As Ned Racine says, "She was relentless." The anthropic principal. A nifty little tool for solving coincidence dilemmas. After all... when you think about it... what are the odds that out of all the people in the world, you just happen to be sitting there right now, reading this column? And I'm the person who just happened to write it? Oh, and it just HAPPENS to be about screenwriting. Oh, and you just HAPPEN to be a screenwriter. Impossible. Unbelievable!