Sunday, March 17, 2013

Some Coincidences Are Good to Find

So the 22 rules of storytelling, as recorded by a Pixar artist, was floating around Facebook this week, and got me thinking--one of my favorites on the list was the following:
A still from amazing Pixar love story in Up.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Soon afterwards, I re-read Flannery O'Connor's classic story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and it struck me that this is the perfect example to consult if you ever want to see how coincidence should be handled. (SPOILER ALERT: I'm about to dive fully into the plot!)

If you've ever read it, then you've noticed that there's a pretty huge coincidence in it--the criminal, the Misfit, has broken out of prison, and is mentioned  several times during the set-up of the story, but within pages, the grandmother (the protagonist) and her family have managed to run smack into the very same Misfit in the middle of God-Knows-Where, Georgia, where they never should have been in the first place--they were headed to Florida!

HUGE coincidence. In a non-Master Writers' hands, we would probably all groan and throw rotten tomatoes. BUT, the fact is, although some coincidence occurs to get our hero into trouble, it does not get her out--it only ensnares her more deeply. And on top of that, our same hero does most of her trouble-making all by herself, creating opportunities that fate/coincidence merely takes advantage of. It's the grandmother who hides her cat, Pitty Sing, in the car, against her family's wishes; it's the grandmother who suggests her family take a detour to see an old plantation she only half-remembers; and finally, it's the grandmother who, when she remembers that the plantation is actually in Tennessee, not Georgia, upsets Pitty Sing's basket and causes the bedlam that leads to the car accident and makes her family vulnerable to the Misfit and his crew. And finally, once the Misfit does show, it's still the grandmother's actions that lead to her and her family's death at his hands.

In other words, coincidence plays a part, but if you do a plot diagram of the story (mine is below--more on this technique later), you'll see that the story's outcome is inevitable and arises primarily from the grandmother's actions. In fact, if you took any of her actions out of the story, it would be completely different--and crisis might be averted. But the plot points in this story are so solid--and chiefly non-coincidental--that they are like nails in a coffin, sealing the grandmother's fate, while making us, the audience, believe every single word.

A possible plot diagram of A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor, based on the "story form as a check mark", explained by J. Burroway & E. Stuckey-French in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 7th ed. (p269)

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