DEUS EX MACHINA - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, September 28, 2006

You're not supposed to resolve a story by pulling the resolution out of your hat. "Deus ex machina," or "god out of the machine," referred originally to the bad-Greek-playwright habit of making a mess of the plot, then resolving it by flying a god out of the wings to fix everything. (They didn't invent the arch, but they did figure out how to rig an actor onto a crane.)

In my new screenplay I am exactly ending a story line by sheer coincidence. A character longs for the perfect couch, which he has a picture of. At the end of the movie, he's going to realize that it's been there, all along, covered up in fabric, at the office where he works.

Here's how I plan to get away with it: by telling the audience in advance that I'm going to do it. Characters are going to remark how uncomfortable the couch in the office is. We're going to see the outline of the couch under the fabric. The audience is going to think: ohhhh, I see. That's the couch he longs for!

By drawing attention to the thing, the thing becomes an expectation. And an expectation won't feel like a coincidence.

This morning, there was an accident at the bottom of my street. It was an accident we'd been expecting for a long time -- trucks park too close to the intersection, making it a blind intersection, and there's no stop sign. We knew someone was going to get blindsided sooner or later down there.

Coincidence in a screenplay is not automatically a bad thing. Many premises are essentially coincidences that set the plot in motion -- Harry and Sally sharing a ride from Chicago to New York. Later on in the screenplay, a coincidence can still work, provided we get to see the coincidence building up. If we're rooting for it to happen or not happen, we won't feel that it comes out of nowhere.

3 Comments:

I have a question for you: A screenwriter whose blog I read is apparently writing a screenplay about a guy and his couch that sounds alot like a public radio story I heard. Should I warn him of this? How do you think he will take it? Is there any advice I can give him about making his story different?

By Blogger johnc, at 4:14 PM  

This sounds like the 200th episode of Stargate SG-1.
There is a screenwriter writing a movie of the events, and meeting with the Stargate staff. He's throwing plots and ideas out there, and finally Richard Anderson says, "Isn't that an awfully big coincidence?"
Screenwriter replies, "No problem! I'll just hang a lantern on it. I'll have another character say, "That's quite a coincidence". Problem solved.
It was very, very funny.
Couldn't you have him steal the couch, then discover it is his perfect couch? Or maybe take a picture of it, because he lost the original picture of his perfect couch, and in the midst of Photoshopping it realize he's found it? Less coincidence involved...

By Blogger Milehimama, at 9:13 AM  

I like your new couch idea. While the previous idea of finding it on the street had the beauty of being a quintessential Montreal moment (a friend used to have a royal blue plush couch that she found on the street; another friend has a dryer that still has "Tres bon etat - a donner" written across the top of it in magic marker), the message (sit on your ass long enough and what you want will fall into your lap) didn't fit the story nearly as well as the new one (what you've been looking for has been right under your nose all along). Which is the kind of coincidence I have no problem with in a movie. If I wanted realism I would stick with reality.

By Blogger Katya, at 11:37 PM  

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