For writers — Evitability, Indiana Jones, and the hand of fate

This article is a gander through the problems of probability and plot necessity, with a look at Fate, and a solution to the Indiana Jones paradox.

Storytelling is about balancing what must happen with what would happen. Aristotle makes this very clear: it is better to have something which is probable but impossible, than something which is possible but improbable. Only the things that would happen — i.e., that are probable — should be in the story. On the other hand, for the story to finish up where the teller wants it to go, it must also be guided by what must happen.

We see this most clearly when it goes wrong. We’ve all watched films where it’s obvious that the Hollywood formula is being fulfilled, but the characters, premise and situation simply do not make the resolution likely. This happens in sequels more than first films. Under Siege — brilliant. Under Siege II — you have to really want to believe it. Legally Blonde — fantastic. Legally Blonde II, attempting to turn on the same knowledge of hairdressing — ridiculous. Films that can make it through a sequel without this happening, such as Alien, Die Hard, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, usually go on to have three or more films.

This isn’t just a play on numbers: failure to observe the law of probability breaks the spell, and we entirely lose interest in the story.

The problem for the storyteller is that what MUST happen — that is, the whole point of the story — MUST happen. The urgency of this is hard to explain, so give yourself an example. Think of when you’ve heard someone tell a narrative joke, and get it wrong so that the punch-line is no longer funny. Do they ever stop telling the joke as they meant it, and deliver a different punch line instead? I’ve heard people who forget the punch-line, and I’ve heard people get the punch-line wrong, but I’ve never heard or seen anyone get to the end of the joke, realise that they haven’t correctly prepared the punchline so that it is unexpectedly inevitable (which they have to be in order to be funny), and give a punch-line or attempt at resolution which fits the joke they’ve just been telling, rather than the one they thought they were telling.

Once we’ve started telling a story, we make sure that we get to the end of it.

Now, you might argue that novelists frequently change the ending as they write. This is both true and not true. As they write, novelists quite often come up with a better method of achieving their plot intention, and some novelists set out without any real sense of what the plot is, discover it, rewrite it, rediscover it and come up eventually with something quite different. However, once they’ve settled on how it’s supposed to end, they make it end that way, plausible or not.

The result is that, over the past seven years, I’ve read an endless number of novels which I was asked to review in which the intended ending is clear from quite early on, but the plot never quite gets there, and so there is a jump, a Matrix-style glitch, to get us back on track.

In one episode of the Big Bang Theory, called The Raiders Minimization, Amy points out an alleged plot hole in the Indiana Jones franchise. It led to a storm of protest across the internet, with some websites claiming that she had ruined the Indiana Jones films for everyone, for ever.

Actually, it’s not a plot hole at all, but part of the secret of the success of the franchise. Amy’s alleged flaw is that, looking at the result at the end of the films, it would have made no difference in each case if Indiana Jones had been there at all.

Fans may hate this, but it is in fact a perfect union of what would happen with what must happen. The Ark of the Covenant must not end up in Hitler’s hands, since in that case he would have won the Second World War, and it would be a reality-change/alternate history film, like Inglourious Basterds. However, that’s one premise too many to introduce right at the end. The Thuggees must not end up controlling India, because that too would change history. The Nazis must not end up with eternal youth, because, again, that would change history. Finally, the Russians must not end up with extra-terrestrial enlightenment, because that would mean a different result in the Cold War.

So much for the big ‘must’s. On a more character-driven level, Indiana Jones must survive, evil must be defeated, but Jones can’t be allowed to get too much. The one thing we can’t allow (until the final film, where he’s almost too old to make any more) is for Jones to finish satisfied, as that would mean no more adventures.

Now, what about the would. If the Ark of the Covenant really were found, and it really was as powerful as described in the Hebrew Bible, and still active, what would happen? Many film makers would be happy for it to convey an unseemly amount of power on those who own it, meaning that they must be stopped. Lucas and Spielberg go further than that. The characters believe that it will convey unspeakable power, but the real Ark of the Covenant would not allow itself to be used for evil. In fact, it would destroy it. So, the ending scene could come straight out of the pages of Exodus or 1 Samuel. This is exactly what would happen.

At the character level, it’s the same: Jones always acts in accordance with his character, as do the others. They do what they would do.

Amy’s accusation is that Indiana Jones is an unnecessary extra in his own film. Perhaps the makers spotted this. The films are called, Indiana Jones AND something (although the original title of the first film was, simply, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’).

If you are looking for a film, or a story, to be the account of how a hero changed the world, then the Indiana Jones films are unsuccessful. However, if you are looking for a stompingly good story, told rather tongue-in-cheek with an eye to a nostalgia market which went on to produce Tales of the Gold Monkey, then Indiana Jones is hard to beat. He exactly satisfies the dictums of Aristotle on story, although he fails to satisfy the modern Hollywood hero trope.

Actually, the success of the Jones franchise may stem exactly from this very thing. They are films about inevitability. The first three have a strong supernatural focus, and the supernatural goes hand in hand in fiction with inevitability. Sometimes this is personified as the hand of Fate, sometimes it is Providence (Robinson Crusoe, for example), and sometimes it is stated but undefined (The Lord of the Rings).

Tales of the supernatural are usually full of references to a pre-guided, if not pre-determined, future: prophecies (Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, anything Greek), omens, messages from the other world (Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar). But this is not window-dressing on a supernatural plot. Rather, it is an in-world acknowledgement of the hand of fate, something which cannot be acknowledged in naturalistic fiction, but is nonetheless present.

The most fundamental property of fiction, which distinguishes it from factual narrative, is not that it is made up, but that it is fully shaped by the author to suit her or his purposes. You, of course, have worked this out. For those other readers, the hand of Fate is none other than the hand of the author. Fate lends herself to fiction because her operations are entirely authorial.

One of the modern rules of writing is that you can use coincidence, even outrageous coincidence, to get your protagonists into trouble, but not to get them out of trouble. This may be a good rule to assist in plausibility, because readers — and even more so viewers — will tend to spot the improbable more quickly if it works towards what must happen, but it really isn’t one that is borne out by a review of great books and great plays. Unmotivated and improbable coincidence doesn’t come up as a plot device for getting the main character into trouble in great writing. Aristotle’s dictum still applies, even if the first time reader or viewer doesn’t notice it. Sober reflection on Tess of the D’Urbervilles reveals that Tess acts entirely improbably when she murders Alec, even though it gets her into trouble. Likewise, the coincidental good fortune in Great Expectations is the major motivator of the plot — Pip just happened to be the one in the graveyard who helped Magwitch, everything follows from that. What is more, this is not a Greek horse — Magwitch’s benevolence never has a negative consequence, although Pip’s own pride and foolishness do.

Shakespeare uses coincidence in the resolution of a number of plays, especially, for example, in the conclusion of As You Like It. In Shakespearian comedy, we are happy to accept coincidence to conclude the plot, because there is a sense that the main issues have now been resolved and we just want some tidying up. What is more, though it cannot be called coincidence, the hand of Providence is clearly presented as the deciding factor in Henry V.

The ‘no good coincidences’ rule is probably an over-application of Aristotle’s views against deus ex-machina, or any plot contrivance designed to solve the plot problems despite not being rooted in the situation or chain of events to that point. Aristotle has no particular problem with coincidence, provided that the coincidence is probably within the story. Even bad coincidences, if improbable, are bad, as far as he is concerned, even if the viewers or readers are less inclined to spot them.

How can a coincidence be probable? In the same way that Alanis Morissette thinks (or at least ironically pretends to think) that ‘life has a funny way of sneaking up on you’. We, the viewers and readers, are not sitting with a set of actuarial tables working out what the most likely thing is. We accept all kinds of things: poetic justice (the ‘petard hoist’), romantic inevitability (the most beautiful thing happens), Morissette irony (the thing you most dread happens), and not forgetting that anything foretold becomes the more probable the more bizarre the coincidence. What were the chances that Macduff would get his men to use branches for camouflage? What are the chances that the man who was born by caesarean section would be the one to kill Macbeth? Neither are probable, in actuarial terms, but both are inevitable, once the prophecy has been made.

The key to remember here is that for story to work, it has to have retrospective inevitability. No-one cares about things which are inevitable before they happen. In fact, if something appears inevitable, and then happens, we are disappointed, and feel that we have not been told a story at all.

“A man was travelling round the bend at 30 miles per hour over the speed limit, crossed the white line, and crashed into an oncoming vehicle. Both drivers were killed.”

We are willing to accept this in a newspaper article because we feel we have a duty to, given what happened to the drivers. However, if this is a fictional account, we don’t want it. This is true whether it is the laws of physics or the laws of magic.

“‘Today you will have a terrible accident’, said the soothsayer. That afternoon, Marcellus raced in the arena and his chariot struck another head on. Both drivers were killed.”

This is really no better.

What we want is something surprisingly inevitable. No-one sees coming the wrath of God, at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the implication of drinking from the wrong cup, at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — at least, not the first time. On re-watching, it is satisfyingly inevitable. What else could possibly have happened? And yet the emotional movement of the plot, the despair, dread and impotence we felt at that moment, still lead us to emotionally expect disaster.

Which brings us back to the hand of Fate. Fate is such a powerful tool because she can make that which must happen seem retrospectively likely. Tricky that she is, the moment she takes a hand, all things become possible.

“‘If you race today, your opponent will suffer terrible loss, and your best friend will rejoice,’ said the soothsayer. Marcellus raced, and he and his opponent were both killed in a head-on collision. Marcellus’s wife Metella married his best friend Marcus as soon as the mourning period was over. Nothing was ever proven, and it was marked down to an act of Fate.”

This isn’t a particularly scintillating story, but it is dramatically better than the other two, and entirely overcomes the problem of improbability. The moment Fate has taken a hand, the literal outcome of the prophecy is inevitable — in fact, we almost expect it to be literally true, and yet entirely the opposite of what we expect. If anything, the example above is too inevitable and insufficiently surprising, because we, the readers, are used to this sort of Delphionics.

Does this persuade you?

Outrageous coincidence can be your friend where moderate coincidence would just come across as being a little bit implausible. This can be in five ways:

  • ironic coincidence: the thing you’d least expect is most likely, even when it turns out well; the one time you don’t prepare against something, it happens
  • prophetic coincidence: any supernatural foreshadowing will prove to be literally true, and the more coincidental and misleading, the better
  • logic bomb coincidence: not if, but when — something was set up early in the plot which is now overlooked. It will happen inevitably, the coincidence that it happens at exactly the right moment is unimportant
  • moral coincidence: poetic justice — if people get what we feel they deserve, then it does not seem improbable
  • run of play coincidence — when someone is ‘on a roll’, we are much more likely to accept that they continue to win, despite all the odds, or that they lose dramatically when everything looked to be in their favour
  • enormity versus likelihood coincidence— we are more likely to accept something if the consequences are enormous even though it is highly unlikely, than something which is moderately unlikely with moderate consequences

Normally speaking, these are all forms of cognitive dissonance — they are ways in which we incorrectly perceive risk, and why people continue to play the lottery, and get so worked up if for some reason they are unable to play one week.

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this away: any common logical fallacy or cognitive dissonance can be exploited by the author to produce plots which are fantastical, and yet retrospectively inevitable.

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