Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Accidents Will Happen, Unless They Don't

Two friends meet without having made previous plans to do so.  Energized by the coincidence, they decide to celebrate over--fill in your choice--coffee, ale, or a cocktail.  Perhaps even lunch.  Later, each categorizes the meeting as pleasant happenstance.

Two automobiles meet in an intersection, also without previous plans.  Neither driver is pleased with the result, nor, in fact, are their respective insurance coverers.  No question this meeting will be classified as an accident.

In the same spirit of unplanned event, the convention-shattering watercolorist, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), in all probability, at least once, caused a brush overloaded with color to meet with a paper surface, whereupon the color would run beyond Turner's expectations, causing him to execute an unplanned maneuver or risk losing the work under construction.  He'd have had to act quickly, because the nature of watercolor requires quick, bold movements.  

In his response, Turner would have turned the potential of accident into a bright flash of creative daring-do and visual wonder, by all accounts a pleasing, creative happenstance. Spend some time considering how accidents have led to breakthrough in thought, understanding, and technique, in art, science, and dramatic narrative.

And what about this for unplanned:  two individuals, each enrolled in the same, large lecture class at a university, unknown to one another at the time, meet later in life.  During the course of their romantic exchanges of background and information, discover they'd actually spent an entire semester together, back then.  

A pleasant coincidence?  Yes.  An accident?  Yes.  Also, such an event introduces another element to accident, the notion of destiny, as in it was destined or fated to happen.  This element adds to the importance of accident in art and drama because of the way it implicates the point of view of the observer.  A character in a play, novel, or short story could be suspected of having caused an accident with an end result motive in mind.

Accident often implies a negative result, but by its very nature, accident also embodies surprise.  By no means are all surprises unpleasant.  Surprise also dances about the definition of unplanned results, a man, say, tasting a scoop of vanilla ice cream offered to him in the belief he prefers it to, say, chocolate or pistachio, discovering an unexpected texture and richness of flavor.

Another potential for accident to enter a manuscript comes when you find yourself "listening" to a character, who wishes to do something you'd not planned for that character, or who wishes to have a thing or get rid of a thing you'd not anticipated, causing the focus of the narrative to change, quite often to the point of adding more energy, frivolity, and believability to the proceedings.

Aristotle may well have argued back in his treatise on story, Poetics, that accidents can increase the burdens and complications of the circumstances in which a character finds himself, but they should not lead to the solution the lead character seeks, because that would be cheating. 

Remember, this was at the time when it was common to believe that the gods intervened to help out mortals they favored or to make matters worse for mortals whom they felt had dissed them.

Thus Sisyphus, your old rock-pushing standby,can have his eternal punishment enhanced by the fact of the rock rolling over his foot, causing the foot severe trauma.  But Sisyphus's plight cannot be assuaged by an accident such as Zeus discovering he'd given Sisyphus the wrong sentence.

There are accidents of birth in the sense of one having been born to a particular class or status, while more than one individual has had to live with the discovery that her birth was a result of an accidental pregnancy. It is possible to be accident-prone.  

You could argue that your philosophy, particularly with short stories, is to keep at the narrative until you accidentally do something that will produce an unplanned path.  Or as Lawrence "Yogi" Berra famously said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

It would be a mistake not to follow.

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