Thursday, March 1, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It: The Third Circle

Welcome back to hell, boys and girls! This week’s horror is: The Sudden Accident!  And it’s a doozy. A real favorite of the beginner, The Sudden Accident!  combines all that is most terrible about a bad story: flat, boring characters, an unpredictably predictable plot, and a complete lack of awareness of melodrama, as is attested by its professional use in soaps and movies of the week. What is the appeal of arbitrarily derailing your protagonist’s train into a precipice, pummeling his car with an avalanche of boulders, or fraying the rope that keeps him from falling off the mountain? Truly, we must find out.

The Sudden Accident

Let’s start at the beginning: all accidents are sudden. If we could see one coming, we would avoid it, n’est pas? So the whole idea that “Suddenly, a red Toyota swerved out of nowhere in front of Lacy’s car,” is an effective way of injecting suspense into a story is questionable. In general, “suddenly” is a very bad writing word. 99.999% of the time, it’s followed by a cheesy move. If a car has to swerve in front of Lacy’s, please, just have it do so, since “suddenly” is quite the only way it can happen. Otherwise it might just be someone hoping you have some Grey Poupon.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s consider how these accidents happen. Often, they serve as a deus ex machina. You have written yourself into a corner, and offing or crippling somebody is your only way out. Lacy is torn between two lovers, for example. One is her long-time, beloved, faithful husband, the other a bad-boy transient motorcyclist who makes her feel young again. Instead of allowing Lacy to make the difficult decision, you decide to kill her in a car accident (most likely a sudden one).  This is bad writing, because you are not allowing the theme nor the characters to develop naturally. It’s a fake resolution: Lacy hasn’t decided a thingshe’s just dead.

This one’s pretty easy to fix. First of all, nix the accident. Spend more time thinking about Lacy and her lovers, in other words, about character, theme, and plot development. Let Lacy make the choice, not the runaway car in the other lane. Read more about natural plot development in my earlier post, here.

Another reason for the sudden accident move is similar to the reason for the divorce or death of parents theme, a desire to explore the loss of security involved when a sudden accident occurs. Usually, these stories involve characters who don’t “appreciate” whatever circumstances the accident conveniently divests them of. Lacy, for example, is seriously considering skipping town with the biker, whensuddenlythe car accident leaves her crippled in some way. Horrified by her mangled beauty, the biker hightails it back to Detroit, but the devoted husband takes her home and spoon feeds her through her recovery, helping Lacy to “appreciate” his devotion and “realize” how wrong she was to take him for granted. If your goal is to write chicken soup stories for Lifetime, read no further; that’s perfect. For literary fiction, however, it’s what we call contrived.  It’s still a deus ex machina, and you can fix it in the same way: Lacy must figure out what to do on her own based on her character and circumstances, not on Toyotas and their sudden moves.

I propose, however, that there’s an even more insidious reason why so many beginners’ stories involve sudden accidents: you hate your characters. Yep. Admit it. Why else would you be so compelled to mangle, torture, and kill them? You hate them. They are boring. They exasperate you. They tax you, they heap you. You want them dead, dead! And may God have mercy on their fake little souls. You have become, in short, Anne Sexton’s farmer’s wife. “The Farmer’s Wife” is one of my favorite poems, a seething, scathing cry for help from a woman trapped in an existence so boring death or poetry are the only ways out. You can read the entire poem here, the setup of despair and go-nowhereness that leads to the most brilliant last five lines any poem has ever had:
her young years bungle past
their same marriage bed
and she wishes him cripple, or poet,
or even lonely, or sometimes,
better, my lover, dead.

That’s what you’re feeling, whether you realize it or not, every time your condemn one of your characters to a sudden accident. You just can’t stand Lacy anymore, her simpering, whiny personality, her stupid dilemma between this dude and that. You hate her! So you kill her, or cripple her, anything to end this abysmal story you’d rather die yourself than continue writing. Once Lacy is dead or sort of, she (suddenly) acquires depth. On her deathbed, or her wheelchair, she quite suddenly becomes wise, able to see truths no healthy living person can. You can make friends with her and let her go into the sunset, vindicated, saved. Ahhh.


The sick and the dead are just as stupid or evil as they were when they were fine. Unfortunately, suffering doesn’t always result in the purification of the mind and soul. If Lacy was an idiot when she was fine, no amount of Toyotas can change her into Yoda. That’s the realm of melodrama again, deathbed scenes that feature villains who, suddenly, become victims, elevated by their suffering or impending deaths into deeply philosophical beings who drop pearls of wisdom from their dying lips. No, no, and no.

You can’t rely on swerving Toyotas and falling planes to make your characters interesting. You have to learn to do that carefully, not “suddenly.” If you feel the need to 86 one of your creations, don’t fool yourself into believing you can “suddenly” provide a rescue. What you probably need is a major overhaula reconsidering of the whole thing, from whether these characters are compelling enough to even whether this material is worth writing about. Maybe what needs to die under the Toyota here is the whole story or poem.

If you’re not ready for such a brave decision, consider doing the opposite of what the sudden accident is leading you to do. The character realizes nothing, for example. Lacy’s all mangled in the hospital, the mensch hubby nurses her back to life, and she hates him all the more for it, spits in his face and curses the day she met him, cries herself to sleep every night thinking of the biker who dumped her. It’s still a pretty bad storyno way to get around the artificial device of the accidentbut at least Lacy gains some complexity.

A reversed stereotype is still a stereotype, however, so this is still not a satisfying solution. What you really want, when you reach for the sudden accident, is insight. You’re as incapable of figuring out what to do as Lacy is, and the Toyota helps you just as much as her. Avoid the sudden accident altogether, and think hard about options you might not have considered before: rather than picking between the husband and the biker, Lacy picks neither. Leaves them both and goes back to school to become a rocket scientist or whatever. Let the story sit for a while by itself until you can get some fresh perspective, but don’t succumb to the temptation of the sudden accident.

Another option is, again, to skip the accident, but keep the results. If the accident serves the purpose of making Lacy appreciate the husband she is thinking of leaving, find a way to make that happen naturally. For example, she could come home one day after a particularly sordid encounter with the biker and be strangely comforted by her husband’s quiet companionship. The end. Conversely, biker dumps Lacy, and, instead of coming home and “suddenly appreciating” her devoted hubby, she hates him, hates him for just being there. Don’t have her stab him or anything, just have her sit there on the couch next to him, seething quietly. The end. There may not be mangled body parts strewn along the highway, but you’ll have accomplished a resolution: Lacy moved from being unsure whether she had grown to hate her husband to being pretty darn sure. That’s it, that’s what the story’s about.

Remember, swerving Toyotas, falling planes, and big boulder avalanches might be exciting or even funny, but just for a little while. They’re not human. They don’t feel, or think. They can never hold our interest. Take a lesson from Faulkner:
There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

You can read the rest of the speech here, or you can watch the video below. Or both. Just don’t do it suddenly!


  1. Excellent post. Good point about character and accident, too.

    At the AWP conference, I sat in on a discussion between Ha Jin, Paul Harding, and Marilynne Robinson about "Literature and Evil." Robinson said she could never write an evil character because such characters are flat and uninteresting, and besides, "I love all my characters, with all their flaws. I could never write a character I didn't love."

    Suddenly, as the earthquake swallowed the car in which the members of the lovers' triangle were riding, the author realized she hated her characters....

  2. Thanks, Ann! I'm so jealous. Marilynne Robinson! So true what she says. What a funny story that would be--the writer's thoughts mixed in with what she writes! It's been done before, but not quite so, er, suddenly.


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