20th Century Films Horror

Coincidence in Screenwriting: Cat People (1942)

Two ways to use coincidence in a screenplay

Coincidence is defined as “the occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident…” In Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, there are three coincidences in the film. From a screenwriting perspective, these function in two ways: 1) to set the story in motion and 2) to setup later scenes, which will increase the conflict and raise the stakes.

The first coincidence in the film is the inciting incident, when Irena (Simone Simon) and Oliver (Kent Smith) meet. Oliver throws garbage into a wastebasket but misses, and when Irena picks it up, he introduces himself. Their meeting is random; they both “just happen” to be there. This coincidence can be interpreted as fate, as if it were meant to be. However, the coincidence is by design. Being in the same place at the same time is necessary because if the two characters don’t meet, there is no story.

Later in the film, two coincidental meetings result in greater conflict between the characters. After an argument with Irena, Oliver goes to his office, and the janitor “just happens” to be cleaning the doorway, so Oliver goes to a coffee shop instead. Later, Alice (Jane Randolph) leaves the office, and the janitor “just happens” to be there and mentions Oliver went to the coffee shop, so Alice goes there too. These two coincidences result in Oliver and Alice being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an earlier scene, Irena suspected Oliver of being attracted to Alice, and when she sees them at the coffee shop, she becomes insanely jealous.

Irena’s jealousy awakens the “cat woman” inside her, and she now wants to kill Alice. The coincidental meetings with the janitor cause the antagonist and protagonists to be in the same place at the same time, and the stakes are raised. If Alice hadn’t met the janitor by coincidence, her life would not be in danger.

In Cat People, coincidences are necessary for the plot to unfold. The coincidence of Irena and Oliver meeting (the inciting incident) sets the story in motion. The coincidental meetings with the janitor result in a turning point, where Irena becomes the antagonist in the film. After the inciting incident, the coincidences make things more difficult for the protagonists, not easier. When coincidence leads to greater conflict between the characters and raises the stakes, the viewer is more engaged with the film.  

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