A reader writes in requesting a reexamination of my post “The Perils of Coincidence” in light of an acclaimed movie which is already a screenwriting award contender:
This weekend, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, a story that is succinctly described by the equation: “I knew the answer to this obscure question because this farfetched event happened to me once. And repeat.”
Is coincidence good now?
— Andre Gayle
I would argue that Jamal’s knowing the right answers falls into my category of a Premise Coincidence, much the same way that in Die Hard, John McClane just happens to be in the building when the villains attack, or in the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker just happens to get bitten by the radioactive spider.
In each of these cases, the coincidence is the reason why the story is happening.
But I can see why Andre is bristling. In my original post, I single out luck and chance as being particularly flimsy pegs upon which to hang a story, and there are a couple of answers in Slumdog that seem arbitrary or tangential (the cricketeer comes to mind).1 However, the overall flashback structure sets a rule and sticks by it: every time we jump back, we’ll see how he got the answer.
I addressed this in my original post, calling it correlation:
Rather than ask an audience to swallow a bunch of little implausibilities, try bundling them together.
In Heroes, imagine if each character had a completely unique origin story: Claire got her powers from a shaman; Sylar is an alien; Peter has a magic ring. You’d get frustrated pretty quickly, because a lot of screen time would go towards explaining why and how. Instead, the creators wisely decided the characters all had some mysterious gene mutation activated by an environmental change. The audience is willing to make that one big leap, because they’re not asked to make similar leaps each time a new character is introduced.
In fact, the biggest coincidence in Slumdog would have to be that the answers Jamal needs just happen to be found chronologically in his life story. That’s something you buy or you don’t. It didn’t bother me.
- A reader points out that the cricket question is actually an answer that’s handled mostly in the present-day story. ↩