I’m not a big believer in fate or destiny. Sometimes shit just happens.
Part of me believes that some things happen for a reason, that we screw up relationships, back into our neighbor’s car, park in a red zone, do all kinds of things accidentally because those accidents are necessary to set us on a different path, to change the course of our lives in some small, significant way. Sometimes, we subconsciously help ourselves into that accidental situation because we know our lives need to change.
Some days, that’s what I believe. Most days, I don’t. Most days I believe that accidents are just accidents, freak, unavoidable occurrences whose only significance is the change they wreak for no reason other than that someone ran a red light or jogged into our blind spot, or some little piece of machinery failed and wasn’t detected before the plane took off.
When it comes to fiction writing, however, I am a firm believer that there’s no such thing as accidents.
It’s not that I think fiction should contain no accidents, that car crashes or plane crashes or keys left in the ignition by mistake should never take place. Indeed, accidents have to happen in fiction, just as they happen in life; however, as fiction writers, we have control over what those accidents mean to our characters, how those accidents will change and shape their lives. In fiction, accidents can’t just be random events that happen and fade away. They have to have consequences, consequences that can be dire, physically and psychologically, or can be quietly transformative, near misses that make our characters rethink something important about their lives.
Fictive accidents don’t have to be classic accidents, of the ran-a-red-light-beyond-characters’ control variety. They can also result from subconscious desires, or submerged anger or regret.
Take for instance, this picture of little girls who’ve had a biking accident.
This could be just one of those things that happens, three little girls playing and not paying enough attention and accidentally crashing into each other. No harm, no foul. After the bruises and scrapes fade, they’ll forget about the incident entirely. No real consequences here.
But what if?
A little girl rides her bicycle on a quiet road lined by cookie-cutter houses. She’s new to the neighborhood, hasn’t made any friends. She hates riding alone. Where she used to live, all the houses looked different and she and her friends would circle their block for hours, chasing each other up each other’s driveways, playing bicycle tag.
But here, she has to ride alone. She’s not supposed to talk to anybody. Not for a while anyway. She’s got to keep their secret. She pumps her legs harder, grips her handlebars tightly. She hates their secret. Hates it. It’s really her mom’s not hers. How could her mom bring her here, leave Daddy in the middle of the night, no note, nothing, and bring her to this place where no one knows her. This place where her mom insists on calling her Angie instead of Carly, in case Daddy tries to find them. They’re not supposed to talk about Illinois, where they used to live. They’re supposed to pretend they moved to Los Angeles from Highland so that her mother could get a better job after her father died. Even though he’s not dead. He’s just mad. Again. He’s always mad, sometimes scary mad, but this time he got so scary mad that Mommy said they couldn’t stay anymore.
As she pedals, faster, faster, the landscape flying by so that she can pretend she’s home in Chicago where it’s green and lush and sweaty hot in summer, not brown and dry like here, so dry that she gets bloody noses at night, she’s thinking about her new name–Angie, she’s Angie now, Angie, Angie, Angie–about her new clothes, which are dull and dark and boring, and how she misses her dad even if she doesn’t miss the yelling and the hitting. Though the hitting wasn’t bad. Daddy never used his fist. He taught her the difference once: hit with an open hand and it’s just a smack, a warning. Hit with a balled fist, well, that’s serious. That’s wrong. She lifts one hand and smacks the air, then curls her hand into a fist and punches, hard, harder, which makes her bicycle swerve almost up onto the curb. Quickly she grabs her bike’s handle again and steers herself back into a clean, straight line alongside the curb and keeps pedaling along the quiet street.
As the houses click by and her hair streams behind her, her name, her real name, plays like a chant in her head. Carly, Carly, Carly. It’s not fair that she can’t use her own name anymore, her very own name, well, not really her own name, her dad picked it because it was his grandma’s name, the grandma who he said she–Carly, not Angie, never Angie, no matter what Mommy says–she looks just like, the grandma who sang and danced on Broadway once, when she was a teenager, so beautiful and talented that she ran away and got a small role in a show and her parents let her do it even though they didn’t approve.
Her legs pump faster, harder, the wind whistles in her ears. Daddy says she’s just like his grandma, just like her, and she can be anything she wants. Mommy’s always the one telling her to be careful, to look for other things she’s good at. Once, she even heard Mommy tell Daddy to stop pushing her, for god’s sake, she’s tone deaf, and he hit Mommy for that, and other stuff, too, but she’s never forgiven Mommy for saying that about how she sings, no way, or for taking her away from Daddy, it’s not fair that just because he’s mean to Mommy they had to leave forever; she had a concert coming up and she was sure that she would get a solo even though Mr. Evans said that maybe she wasn’t ready quite yet, and she’s pedaling faster and faster and faster, the wind drying her wet face, when–CRASH–she collides with something.
She lies on her back with her eyes closed, then sits up holding her ribs, opens her eyes to see her bike beside her, the front tire mangled.
Across from her is another little girl lying on her stomach, her dark hair hiding her face, her legs tangled in her own bike, her feet in the air. A third little girl, also dark haired, just like our little girl and the one lying on the ground, sits on her bicycle and calls out in a high, squeaky voice, “Heather? Are you okay?”
Our little girl, the one who smashed into the girl lying on her stomach because she was so busy thinking about her daddy and her new life and the things she’s going to miss, says in a whisper, “Sorry. I didn’t see you.”
Heather, the girl on her tummy, sits up slowly, checks her scrapes and bumps, then smiles at our little girl. “I’m okay,” she says. “I should’ve watched where I was going. I’m Heather and that’s Jill. What’s your name?”
“Carly,” she says without thinking, then quickly, “no, Angie. It’s Angie.”
Heather and Jill stare at her curiously. They don’t know her, not yet. Maybe they won’t ever. Maybe they’ll ride away and never speak to her again. But maybe they’ll get to be friends, good friends who tell each other secrets. And maybe they’ll circle back to the first time they all met, when her name, her real name, was a living, breathing thing, shimmering the air. And maybe they’ll ask her about it, and maybe, just maybe she’ll tell. She’ll have to tell them. They’ll be her friends. And telling wouldn’t really count because that first time she told them had been an accident. She hadn’t meant to tell anyone. She’d meant to keep her mother’s secret. Hadn’t she?
My point: In fiction, accidents, big, small, curious, improbable, they all need to mean something. They can’t exist just for the sake of moving the plot forward or having something–anything–happen. They can’t be anecdotes that winds up meaning nothing to the characters or their journey through the story. Accidents in fiction have to have causal value. They have to mean something, to the characters, to the way they feel and act and react.
This exercise forces you, from the beginning of the scene, to rethink a typical accident.
Set your timer for 20 minutes and write a scene that starts with the following line:
“It was supposed to look like an accident.”
Start your timer. Ready, set, write!
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