The Coen Brothers, Storytelling, and Fate…by Scott Myers

By Scott Myers

One motif we see in Coen brothers movies is fate.

Characters may dream. Characters may scheme. But their actions often have unintended consequences. Plus other characters may enter the narrative who significantly alter the flow of the narrative. This extends to events that transpire such as the flood in O Brother, Where Art Thou or the impending tornado at the end of A Serious Man.

What we are considering is free will vs. predestination. I have written about the latter here in a Theology of Screenwriting post on my blog.

The basic idea is this: A Protagonist will find him/herself in a narrative circumstance amidst a set of characters with a particular resolution that derives from the very nature of their psyche at the beginning of the story, what I call Disunity. That means the story universe is tied intimately to who the Protagonist is and who they are destined to become: Fate in a narrative sense.

The Coen brothers have a unique sensibility about Fate, it seems to me, one that reflects their dark and quirky take on reality. There is an anecdote from a documentary on the Coens you can see here which speaks to this point.

The story is told by a long-time friend of the Coens and I’ll paraphrase it:

When Joel and Ethan were young, living with their parents in Minnesota, the family had a dog. Advanced in years, the dog eventually lost the ability to use its hind legs. So for a year or more, they had to literally hoist the dog up from the rear to enable it to eat, poop, pee, and so on.

At some point, the father decided he had had enough, that it was time for the dog to be taken to the vet and put down.

Evidently the dog picked up on this because the very day they were prepping to carry the dog to the car to take him to the vet to meet his maker, suddenly the dog’s hind legs began to work. Like a miracle!

So they open the front door and the dog sprints outside, across the front lawn, into the street…Where it gets hit by a car and is killed.

That is such a Coenesque story. And it conveys perfectly the attitude they take toward Fate in their storytelling. Violent. Ironic. Funny. Sad. Weird. Unpredictable. But ultimately this: Characters are free to do whatever they do, however at the end of the day, it’s Fate that dictates the outcome.

Ethan wrote a poem called “The Drunken Driver Has The Right Of Way” and if you read it thinking of the Drunken Driver as Fate, you’ll see what I’m getting at:

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.
The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.
The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.
The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay,
The drunken driver has the right of way.
De jure is de facto’s slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.
It’s only the naivest who’ll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.
However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

In a Coen story, characters go about their lives with their dreams and schemes, but there is a more powerful dynamic at play: Fate. Whereas in a typical Hollywood movie, the Protagonist’s destiny starting with their Disunity in Act One and ending with Unity in Act Three, is almost always a positive arc with a happy ending, the Coen’s non-traditional approach is grounded in Fate that acts very much like a Drunken Driver. Sometimes it misses you. Sometimes it hits you.

Takeaway: Have you ever thought about the presence of Fate in your stories? That your characters have a narrative imperative? Have you considered how your Protagonist’s beginning state of being is intimately tied to the nature of their journey, even down to the various characters with whom they intersect and events that transpire?

Beyond that, what is nature of your story’s Fate? Can you think about it as its own character? Maybe it’s the ultimate Authority Figure.

If you wish to emulate the Coen brothers’ sensibilities, maybe your story’s Fate is like a Drunken Driver…

You can read more by Scott Myers at Go Into the Story, or buy your ticket to the Festival today to hear Scott speak!