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Accidents are a part of our real life. It is possible to see an old friend accidentally. It is possible to find a fallen comet accidentally. It is possible to kill someone by an accident, etc. Many stories of our real life are based on an accident. Also many good "realistic" stories begin by occurrence of an accident for the main character. But based on my personal experience in the life I think occurrence of "two" independent accidents in a "single" drama is rare and strange. So it seems if I want to write a realistic story I should avoid occurrence of frequent accidents in it. In the other words it seems that a story which begins with an accident could be reasonably realistic even if this accident is too strange or rare to happen but a story with more than one accident seems unnatural and unrealistic.

Question: Does frequent occurrence of accidents in a single story harm its realistic content? As an example, can we be almost sure that a story which its main character accidentally sees his old friend in the street and also finds a comet in his garden in the same day, is not a story based on the truth? Do these stories produce a sense of being unrealistic for their audiences?

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6 Answers 6

You can have as many coincidences/accidents as you like, as long as you are able to maintain suspension of disbelief.

You need to spend more time on Tv Tropes where you will find variations on coincidences/accidents such as Contrived Coincidence, Coincidence Magnet, and Theory of Narrative Causality.

If you can suspend disbelief in your audience you can turn Lake Michigan into a hot fudge sundae, at least on the radio.

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Welcome to Writers! If you'd be willing to summarize the links you provided, it would make this a much better answer. –  Neil Fein Dec 26 '13 at 3:54
Don't forget about the Rule of Cool! –  SF. Dec 26 '13 at 3:55
Thanks for your useful answer. I need some time to find an appropriate structure for adding many accidents. –  Saint Georg Dec 26 '13 at 8:38
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There's two things about accidents in stories:

(1) A literary text focusses on the people and events that pertain to the story and excludes everything else. Of course fictional characters go to the toilet or meet neighbors when they leave the house, but if the neighbors or the bowel movements don't help the plot along, you don't write about them.

So, if your character meets an old pal from high school by accident, you don't mention it, if it is not important for your story. And if it is important for your story, it becomes meaningful in retrospekt (see 2).

(2) Many things in our lives happen by accident. You meeting your future wife, is a good example. You could simple not have met her, if you had not gone to that party or not taken up that job or wherever you met her. And you children, your divorce etc. would never have happened. The same goes for almost anything in your life: your job (it was an accident, that this job was free at the moment you were looking for one), your body shape (it was an accident that this particular sperm fertilizet that egg) etc.

But human beings have the tendency to try to make sense of things. We see faces in clouds, monsters in shadows, and purpose when we look back on our lives.

As we walk into the future, we encounter accidents. As we look back, we see the line of events that followed from that accident and gave it restrospective meaning. Since you spent 20 years with that woman, it could not have been accident that you met her. The 20 years give that chance meeting a deeper meaning.

Now what does that have to do with story?

Just as much that happens in your life is accidental, a lot that happens in a story is of course accidental, too (at least on the level of story logic; of course nothing is accidental from the writer's point of view). The later lovers meet by accident (unless your story is magical and there is something like fate at work). The gun does not go off by accident. etc.

So, the question is not how many accidents happen in a story (because there will be countless), but if what you write down becomes meaningful for the protagonists on their quest. If it does, it is no longer an accident.

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But human beings have the tendency to try to make sense of things. We see faces in clouds, monsters in shadows, and purpose when we look back on our lives., It is an important philosophical idea that everything is based on probability. This idea is supported by some scientific theories like quantum mechanic. In this theory any desired discipline of cosmos is what we give to the world using our complex brain. In Kuhn's theory in philosophy of science what we understand from the discipline of the world is an amalgamation of our looking paradigm and the real discipline of the world. –  Saint Georg Dec 27 '13 at 20:17
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As a rule of thumb: If a accident makes a character’s life worse, you can put it anywhere in the story, because it becomes just one more challenge for the character to overcome. If an accident makes a character’s life better, then putting it anywhere but the beginning of the story weakens the story, because it feels like cheating.

So, for example, you can begin a story with a character receiving a winning lottery ticket, and then the character’s wealth is the backdrop to the other events (or perhaps, the story can be about some challenge associated with all this new money). But if your main character spends a hundred pages trapped by financial difficulties, you can’t introduce the winning lottery ticket on page 101. (Unless, perhaps, the money leads to even more intense problems, showing the reader that the main character’s problem all along was something other than poverty.)

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If you're concerned about too many accidents, then try to find a way to add some purpose to some of them.

1) It's doubtful that you can find a way for a comet to land in someone's garden deliberately if you're not writing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But if you need for A to meet up with old friend B, you could set up some background:

  • It's May. A's niece is graduating college. While shopping for a gift/traveling to attend the graduation, A starts thinking about her own college graduation. This makes her think of the friends she had in college. One of them is B. When she gets home, she looks up B on Facebook and sends B a quick message. B responds with an email. They agree to meet for lunch.
  • It's Christmas. A is prepping her gift card list. A pulls out an old address book to find Auntie So-and-So's address. B's name is in it. Follow on as above.
  • It's spring cleaning time. A is cleaning out her closets and finds mementos from college/a scrapbook/an old sweater etc. Something reminds her of B.

You could of course reverse any of those so that B finds A, although that may feel too much like coincidence (which is similar to accident).

2) Or you could take the opposite tack and have the "accidental" meeting in the street turn out to be very deliberate, but the reader and/or character doesn't discover the machinations until much later in the book.

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The infinite improbability drive was such a great plot device. –  hildred Dec 26 '13 at 16:59
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I really like this question and I think it points to an important idea. In fiction (I don't see this applying to non-fiction) a reader is generally going to have to have a certain suspension of disbelief, or simply, accept that highly improbable event occurred/s to facilitate a story.

The most obvious example I can think of comes from film actually...Transformers. If you aren't familiar there have been three movies made. In movie #1 an artifact drifts through space and lands on earth, the probability is minuscule of that happening of course but without it there is no reason for giant alien robots to be on earth and thus no story...so ok yeah I am good with that because I can accept that while it is unlikely the thing had to land somewhere right?

What killed me with the following two movies (aside from the terrible dialogue, and giant robot balls...Michael Bay I despise you...) is that equally improbable chance happenings occurred in both. Now I have a problem because not only did this artifact land on earth, but you also have ancient ancestors building sun eating machines on earth several millenia ago (which none of the current actors knew about) and you have a ship that crashed on the far side of the moon after also drifting through space for who knows how long...at this point the story is so ridiculous that even giant alien robot fights...which are hard not to love, can't save the movie from being terrible.

The scale of the event, or the likelihood of it occurring is important as well. World altering events...yeah probably shouldn't have more than one...two people that live in the same apartment building running into each other around the neighborhood...much more likely.

Your two accidents...maybe they dont happen on the same day. Maybe the comet falls and the character finds it. Then in the rush and excitement of it all the character runs into his/her old friend. Maybe that happens in reverse...depends on what purpose the friend plays. Now if that old friend is also and astro-physicist or astronomer...then you have to be more careful...if things seem far to convenient they probably are.

Really liked the question.

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Thank you for your useful answer, James. –  Saint Georg Dec 27 '13 at 20:01
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First, I'd like to clarify your use of "comet". A little googling indicates comets are typically measured at about 8 km = 5 mi. Something like that "landing in someone's back yard" would be a globally catastrophic event. That itself could be a good story, but perhaps you meant a meteorite, a small piece of space debris that survived it's fall to earth.

Second, and more important, within the last (rough guess) decade or two, the idea that our lives meander through a series of arbitrary chance occurrences (could be "accidents") has made it's way into some more mainstream books and movies. The theme is at least as old as existentialism, finding it's modern roots in Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

But based on my personal experience in the life I think occurrence of "two" independent accidents in a "single" drama is rare and strange. So it seems if I want to write a realistic story I should avoid occurrence of frequent accidents in it. In the other words it seems that a story which begins with an accident could be reasonably realistic even if this accident is too strange or rare to happen but a story with more than one accident seems unnatural and unrealistic.

On the other hand, Roy Sullivan has reportedly been hit by lightning seven times. While I think you're right in general, that a particular genre cannot have too many wild accidents, there are also cases where several accidents combined can create a type of mystery and confusion, such as an innocent man being found guilty of a crime, a guilty person getting away, etc. There's also the genre based on Shakespeare's, "The Comedy of Errors". And finally, realistic accounts of wars include many instances of both tragic and fortunate accidents that in total contributed greatly to the final outcome outside the control man.

So what the heck am I saying? Be original. If you want a lot of accidents, feel free to have them. Just make sure they make sense. One way of having something make sense is to be unapologetic about it - let the reader you know it would normally be absurd to see it this way, but from the perspective of your story (or the perspective a character) it is perfectly logical. Or in other words, ditto on what everyone else says... learn the rules but then feel free to break them in any way you want.

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