Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that “If in the first act you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise,” he said, “don’t put it there.”
Adhering to the principle of “Chekhov’s Gun” allows a writer to tell clear, concise and satisfying story. In mainstream fiction, you rarely see coincidences. Every element has meaning.
In real life, coincidences happen all the time. Just now, I was looking at dresses on Overstock.com. I saw only one I really liked: this one. Immediately after that, I was looking at galadarling.com for a completely different reason and saw a picture of Gala in this dress. If it’s not the same dress, it at least looks very similar. In a movie, my seeing a picture of someone awesome in a dress I was just looking at would probably mean that I had to buy the dress. It would be my destiny. If I were to buy and wear this dress, something wonderful would happen.
In real life, it’s just a cool but not-that-unusual dress.
The belief in destiny, and related beliefs– like the romantic notion of “The One”– can get in the way of good decisions. Weighing the pros and cons of a situation and acting based on what seems best is a little more complicated than waiting for all-powerful Fate to take its course, but it puts the control in your hands. It gives you options.
In this Thought Catalog piece, Brandon Scott Gorrel explains exactly why “The One” is a destructive cliche. “…you’re always on guard for the red flags the story provides that mean your partner isn’t the ‘the one.’” Notice how he said “the story”? Of course, there is no story. Just life. So when things happen, they’re not warnings from a comprehensible narrative. They’re just things, happening.
Belief in “The One” can lead to both leaving good relationships and staying in bad relationships. With this belief, the question is not “Are we well-suited to each other?” or “Are we happy more often than we’re unhappy?” but “Is this person secretly the one I am magically destined for, or is that person somewhere out in the world lost and alone because I’m with this guy instead of him?” That person– the one wandering around waiting to find you like a missing puzzle piece– doesn’t exist.
The idea of destiny hampers careers as well as relationships. People often talk about a “calling” as though everyone has one thing at which they’ll be effortlessly brilliant and completely fulfilled. In truth, we have interests and skills, and some jobs will line up with those better than others. The expression “do what you love and the money will follow” strikes me as bullshit because it buys into the idea that the universe will reward you for following your “true path,” whether or not it’s useful to anyone else. Money follows providing a good or service that people will pay you for. That, or a successful lawsuit. But providing a good or service usually doesn’t have to involve getting whiplash.
Often accompanying a belief in Destiny is a belief in Signs that will point you toward said Destiny. In fiction, a random occurrence will be a Sign. A character struggling with whether to move across the country or not might be given some incentive from the Universe, like his favorite frozen yogurt shop opening a branch in the prospective new town.
When a character makes decisions based on things like this, it can be heartwarming. When a real person does it, it’s called apophenia. According to Wikipedia, apophenia is “the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.”
If you look for meaning from the meaningless with the full knowledge and understanding of what you are doing, it can be useful. It can help you think of things you might not have thought before. For instance, you might be reading Tarot cards and pull The Heirophant, as I just did. The Heirophant can symbolize tradition, ritual, a lack of progress. “Ah-ha!” you might think. “I have been stuck in a rut at work. That’s been in the back of my mind, but I haven’t really thought about it.” If, however, you really believe that the Universe has aligned to make you pick that one particular card, or catch that one particular ad on TV, just to give you infallible advice… Well, that’s just kind of silly, now isn’t it?
Keep in mind also that a story is made up of only selected information about a fictional universe that may or may not exist in more detail in the author’s mind. It’s also information that’s filtered through the author’s perspective. An author can choose to make you believe that a random stray dog is relevant to the heroine’s relationship with her mother just by mentioning the dog at the right moment in the narrative. Hundreds of authors, read over the course of a lifetime, might make you believe that a random stray dog is relevant to your relationship with your mother.
In his 2009 piece, “TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life,” Uther Dean says:
“It is a cold hard truth about life that, at the end of the day, everything is basically just a largely random mishmash of events, the severe majority of which are largely out of your control. As we consumed more and more media, we became more and more enchanted by the easy fixes and stricter fairnesses of fictional realities. [We have a] direct and diabolic yearning to live the lives we fictionalise for ourselves.”
And who’s to say there’s anything wrong with occasionally indulging in that fantasy, placing ourselves at the center of a cohesive and compelling narrative? It only becomes a problem when it’s habitual and unconcious.
Acting teachers often point out students’ physical and vocal habits, like crossing their arms or having an upward inflection at the end of every sentence. This isn’t to say, “You must never ever do that!” Crossed arms and statements that sound like questions? They’re a part of the human repertoire. The trick is to know when you’re doing it, so that it’s a choice rather than a habit.
Similarly, fantasizing that you and your spouse were destined to be together because you were caught in the same traffic jam and both listening to a Beatles mix CD at the time is fine. Thinking that you should stay in a relationship with someone who treats you like crap because grand cosmic forces brought you together is not fine.