Recently someone brought up a car accident I had several years back. One night Rosie, a Palm Springs fixture, and I collided. Rosie is the power behind a sightseeing carriage for tourists. The driver was apparently deep into explaining Palm Springs lore and Rosie obviously tired was making the left turn out of habit. Anyway the next thing I know, Rosie’s hoof was through my windshield and about six inches from my face.
I quickly put the car in reverse and extracted Rosie but my Toyota was severely damaged. This piece of bad luck (accident) garnered me much sidewalk attention as well as a big article in the local newspaper. Rosie and the carriage weren’t harmed but unfortunately my Toyota was almost a pile of junk.
Rosie got her picture in the paper the next day and I was thought of as a fiend. It said so in the paper. However, Rosie’s owner had to pay for the accident since there was no stop before turning left. That was not a good accident for anybody.
This got me to thinking. What is an accident? Wikipedia says it is a set of circumstances often with lack of intention or necessity. An accident generally implies an outcome which might have been avoided or prevented had circumstance been recognized or acted upon prior to its occurrence.
Then I got to thinking about “good” accidents. I did some checking up and we’ve had some doozies to take place. The microwave oven for example. A scientist walked in front of a large Raytheon vacuum tube and it melted the candy bar in his pocket. He was amazed. He put some popcorn in his pocket and walked in front again and it popped. What a lucky accident.
Coca Cola was another accident. A chemist was trying to make an elixir to relieve headaches by combining coca leaves and cola nuts. An assistant inadvertently mixed a batch with soda water and the pause that refreshes was born.
Post-its came from a batch of glue gone bad. Why the yellow color? Another accident. Once they saw that this accident glue could come unglued easily, they had to have some paper to try it on. The only paper available in their storage cabinet was yellow.
Even Viagra was an accident. It was an experiment to relieve chest pains. Instead it did something else and in the process made a lot of people happy. They were looking for synthetic rubber during World War II and instead came up with Silly Putty. Velcro (the name coming from a combination of velvet and crochet) came about when a man sat down on a cockle burr. Penicillin came about by letting some food get old and grow beards in the refrigerator.
So, we have good and bad accidents to deal with in life. We of course prefer the good accidents like this: A friend of mine stopped at a convenience store to get a pack of cigarettes. A young, underage man outside said he’d give my friend a dollar if he would buy him a pack. My friend took the dollar and bought a lottery ticket and won a thousand dollars. Then you have the case of where you say you would have never met your wife of fifty years if you had not gone to such and such a place at such and such a time.
Then we need to see how all of this pertains to writing your screenplay, stage play, novel or short story. We must be very careful how we use fortunate accidents in our writing. Unfortunate accidents, Rosie for example, can be the entire reason behind a short story. Adverse accidents are good plot builders and make your hero work even harder to overcome whatever he or she is trying to overcome.
However, watch out with those lucky accidents happening in your writing. You can put a maximum of two in whatever it is you’re working on and even that will be testing credulity. If you put several, you will be thought of as being totally unrealistic. Everybody knows no one is lucky all the time so your writing will seem very amateurish and artificial.
The most important thing is to put your one or two “fortunate accidents” in the beginning of your work. That way it will not interfere with your plot. However, if you put these lucky accidents anywhere else and especially at the end of the story, you will be thought of as very amateurish and totally unrealistic.
In writings of the 1800s, this was not the case. Practically everybody put in a lucky break or two toward the end of their work. So many people lived such wretched lives at the time, good accidents became a way of kissing up to your audience. Hence, Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist gave us one of the best poor-mouth lines of all time: “Please, sir, may I have more?” Then the kid ends up rich at the end of he story. Such would not fly these days when hyper-reality is almost the name of the game in writing.
Let’s suppose the following were the twist of your latest screenplay, novel or stage play: Little Nell of the Salt Mine Orphanage goes every Sunday to the park where she gives two of her five peanuts to a bum there. In the last chapter or scene, it turns out that not only is the bum J. Gotbucks, the Zillionaire, but her long lost grandfather. From now on she will be riding around in a chauffeured limousine to hop-scotch rallies and skateboard competitions. See, it definitely doesn’t work. Tilt, reject, blah, garbage can.
So, we have unfortunate and fortunate accidence to deal with in life—and in our writing.
Cheers and good writing!