Accidents can work wonders. People meet and fall in love, and perhaps if no asteroid hit the earth about 65 million years ago, no one could write or read this blog. But accidents and fiction are badly matched.
Plenty of accidents annoy or destroy. We leave the bread in the oven too long, saw lumber a quarter inch too short, delete favorite photos while making space in the Cloud, blurt painful things that never entirely disappear. Only the last one drives fiction. The others are entirely realistic and could deepen plot. Yet something’s missing.
Try this. “Prudence was minding her own business, when suddenly she decided to visit her mother’s grave, quit her job, end her marriage. Or she didn’t decide a thing, yet suddenly got struck by lightning, or a teen toying with his new handgun, or a car careening onto the sidewalk.”
Poor Prudence. Poor reader of a novel about Prudence. Suddenly? That enhances fiction about as much as “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”
Fiction traces motive. Why suddenly end her marriage, and why’s she ruminating during the storm, especially when a random car veers onto the sidewalk? Why watch her ruminate at all?
Active choices have driven fiction for centuries. Even a novel as blatantly moralistic as Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” (1740, subtitled “Virtue Rewarded “) examines motive. Squire B doesn’t make his move until his mom dies, and Pamela mistrusts her supposed benefactor. After probing human behavior and its result, the novel concludes both happily and morally.
Today’s readers might not call this book “licentious,” balk at class difference, or applaud Pamela’s obsession with chastity. But they might all agree that the book’s core is what the character must learn, just as Darcy and Elizabeth must unlearn pride and prejudice in the novel of that title. Some things never change.
How much can characters learn from random events, however tragic? Such events reveal heroism and weakness. Sometimes they reveal whom we really love or what really matters. Yet fiction’s most intriguing messages involve dilemmas, human choices, and their resolutions. So you might try the following:
~ Watch for the word “suddenly.” Is it an easy solution to a fictional issue you’d be better off solving?
~ Beware external events as plot pivots. Yes, war, tornadoes, and forest fires change lives. But can they contribute as much as revealing human psychology through—human psychology?
~ Trace the consequences of decisions. In real life ambivalence determines lots of outcomes; we simply refuse to decide—and something results because of that. But how powerful is inaction in fiction? How powerful are outcomes based on external forces rather than personal choices?
The greatest stories trace not battles, but character response to them; not famine, but character response to it, not poverty, but character response to it. Does your novel rely on unfortunate or tragic happenstance, or on the outcome characters earn or fail to? We look to fiction for what life doesn’t provide.
Tip: Accidents are part of life but serve minimal purpose in fiction.