Jan 27 2013

Happenstance … Luck

Melissa Crytzer Fry

A few weeks ago, I thought I was doing my husband a favor by pulling Betty into a different stall under the breezeway so that his work vehicle could fit in one of the bays. But when I shut off the engine, I heard an ominous hiss. Thinking something was wrong with the motor, I re-started the Jeep, moved forward a tad, and shut it off. And again: hisssss. Louder.

Did I mention that I suck under pressure? (Don’t ask about the time I caught the microwave on fire). So I ran to the house, grabbed my phone and called dearest husband: “I think the engine’s blowing! What do I do? Should I move Betty down by the wash so the house doesn’t catch fire?”

He says, calmly, “Go out and see if it’s still making the noise.” Of course I’m afraid to go near it because I just KNOW it will blow up in my face. Phone in hand, I walk tentatively toward Betty, then start to laugh. Then frown. Then whisper a few expletives. The hissss, was this:

Within mere minutes, the tire – with its blown sidewall – was flat, and Betty was lopsided… and disabled.

The irony of this story is that Betty hadn’t moved an inch since the holidays, when I’d last parked her (following a trip with an adventurous 70-something year-old friend from Chicago, along the remote San Pedro):

This is one of my favorite vistas in the desert. Click to enlarge.

That tiny patch of dirt at the right is the road my friend and I had driven during the holidays. Click to enlarge.

So, yes, when I realized I’d been driving on dried-out tires – hoping to get just a little more life from them – I was struck by reality: things could have been worse. The tire could have blown along the San Pedro River (where, mind you, we passed only a few cars). This was pretty much all we saw:

Three horses grazing (one is off camera). Click to enlarge.

I have wanted to photograph this trailer for years. Its tired sag, its rusty walls, and the vast expanse of desert mountains in the background give some indication of how far off the beaten path we were. Click to enlarge.

The geologic formations in this area are breathtaking. Click to enlarge.

Yeah … I’ll take luck any day – especially since the spare tire isn’t a correct fit and I haven’t changed a tire since I was 21. Oh yeah, and paying for the new shoes wasn’t much of a picnic either. But still…

For Writers & Readers: Happenstance. Luck. Serendipity. Those moments happen to us in real life. We may forget about them moments after they occur, shrug them off as coincidence. In fact, we won’t remember all of those incidents in our lifetimes, but we do accept them.

Yet in fiction, we’re less accepting of Lady Luck. Consider the movies you’ve watched and the books you’ve read – how, when luck intervenes, your first response is: How convenient. How predictable. How boring.

The best fiction transcends life. Just because “it really happened that way” (you argue to your critique group), doesn’t mean it makes for good fiction. Just ask a reader. Characters are most appealing when luck isn’t on their side, when they’re bumbling, stumbling and grasping.

So if I’d been writing the script of Betty’s blown tire, you can bet it would have been more calamitous than what really happened. In this case, however, thank goodness for real life … because, on the trek home from the San Pedro drive, we were on a winding, mountainous, guardrail-less highway, traveling at 60 MPH.

Can you think of an instance in your life when happenstance – luck – protected you or even led to something great and unexpected? Do you recall a particular book or movie that failed to wow you because of lucky circumstances that seemed too contrived?


34 Responses to “Happenstance … Luck”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    What a story! And what luck you weren’t out in the desert by your self, phew! (By the way, I would’ve thought the same thing about the tire, too, and run to get my husband’s help.) Last year we had a similar thing happen — I actually wrote a blog about it! Our son was going on a long trip and so were we (in different cars). A few days before he was to leave, we took the car our son was going to take into the mechanic to get a new muffler. But right before he left, I had a bad feeling about the repair, and we asked my son take the other car (the one we were going to take). Sure enough, later in the day — when he would’ve been hundreds of miles away — the new muffler fell off, disabling the car! We rented another car for our trip, and all was well, but boy was I glad my son wasn’t stranded far away on some highway far from home!

    As for fiction, what you describe is a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people just happen to be in the right place at the right time over and over again. I can’t think of any specific books (or movies) off the top of my head that annoyed me this way, but it’s one of the top reasons a writer “loses me.”

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh, Julia… I remember that story. Terrifying! So glad luck stepped in to make sure your son was safe. And, yes, I’m right there with you on the predictability of “right place, right time” in some novels and movies. I keep thinking of horror movies where the woman is starting the car and the engine won’t turn over … the murderer is at her door, hand on the window… and SUDDENLY the car starts up. What I want to know: why didn’t the damn car start in the first place?

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    It does seem that bad luck is a requirement for a good story. And I’m never satisfied if the characters don’t have to work and learn and grow for them to succeed. Good like is the easy way out. Thank goodness real life doesn’t work like that.

    I’m so glad your tire blew at home. My dad taught me to change a tire when I got my driver’s license, but I’ve never actually had to do it so I’m not sure I could.

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    Shary Reply:

    I mean “good luck is the easy way out.”

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes – agree completely: good luck IS the easy way out (at least I see it as a cop-out for the author).

    I know – I’ve ‘learned’ how to change a tire a half dozen times, but if I don’t practice, I forget. And these are special tires with locks, so … clueless. MUST learn! Pronto!

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Oh my, Melissa! You are one brave lady, and I agree with Julia — I am so glad you weren’t out in the desert by yourself. Also, I have a rather embarrassing confession.

    I don’t know how to change a tire!

    I really, really need to learn. This post actually reminds me of that. A little independence is always necessary, even when we have such dear husbands who counter our “It’s gonna blow!” drama! 😉

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha ha… Yeah… I am the perpetual drama queen, and have to agree that I need a tire-changing refresher course myself. I’m one of those “learn by doing” gals. If you don’t LET me do it myself, I won’t retain a darn thing by simple instruction.

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Oh Betty! Melissa, I’m so relieved at how THIS story turned out.

    I love that you make the point about luck in stories. I definitely struggle with that–as both reader and writer. The truth is that life does thankfully offer us moments of blessed good fortune so why is it we feel somewhat cheated or wary of them in fiction, I wonder? But yet we do, don’t we?

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    Melissa Reply:

    It is puzzling, isn’t it – that in fiction we just can’t accept those “moments of blessed good fortune” (Love the way you worded this, Erika … poetic!)

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  • avatar Jessica Vealitzek Says:

    You are so right–real life doesn’t always make good fiction, for the reasons you mention and also the other way, I think: truth can be stranger than fiction, sometimes TOO strange. It’s a fine balance.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ahh… I’m SO glad you bring this up. I wanted to include that fact as well (but somehow it didn’t fit the theme of my already-wordy post). SO true that truth IS often stranger than fiction. Excellent, excellent point! This reality makes for an interesting paradox for writers who “strive for realism” but “not too much realism.”

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  • avatar Linda Anselmi Says:

    So glad you are okay and nothing bad happened!

    I’ve been in too many “if not for the grace of god” situations not to believe in luck. Then again, isn’t it bad luck to be in the situation to begin with?

    Beautiful views.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha… Great point. It IS bad luck to be in the particular situation to begin with! Thanks for the view compliments; I love the desert!

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    Linda Anselmi Reply:

    Me too! I just wish I was compatible with the hot and dry!

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    Sounds like Betty was looking out for you, Melissa! So glad that things worked out the way they did.

    And yes, I’ve definitely read books or seen movies where coincidences seemed WAY to contrived. Isn’t funny how we’ll suspend disbelief for some things–like a woman who can taste people’s emotions through the food they cook or a husband who time-travels–but mere everyday coincidences are a harder sell?

    I think so much of it has to do with the writing, and with how the writer can manipulate (for lack of a better word) the readers’ emotions so that we actually HOPE for certain coincidences to happen (versus having them sprung on us in places where they seem too convenient).

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    Melissa Reply:

    What a thoughtful response. You are SO right: the writing definitely affects our ability to suspend disbelief. The million-dollar question is: how to do it! (Loved your examples… One was The Time Traveler’s Wife, right? What was the other? Now I think I need to read it!)

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    Natalia Sylvester Reply:

    The other was THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender…it’s SO good. (And also I have a huge title crush on it. Isn’t it great?!)

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    Wow, glad you’re safe! I think you have a great point; we are so much more accepting of coincidence and luck in life than we are in fiction. Readers call BS at the drop of a dime, but in real life we have no option but to believe what’s happening to us. I’m going to try to remember that the next time I’m reading and go, “No way!” =)

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, I guess we have higher expectations of our fiction than we do of real life :-). I’ll think of YOU, every time I say, aloud, “NO WAY! C’MON!”

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer (@Hallie_Sawyer) Says:

    Being lucky in real life is way better than it happening in a book or movie. I don’t like the predictable endings or lackluster characters. I love books and movies that keep me on my toes and never let me take a scene for granted.

    Way to go Betty!

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  • avatar Tracy Mangold Says:

    I’m so glad it didn’t happen AWAY from home though. Flat tires flat out suck. I love the pictures as always though and your stories. Sorry I haven’t commented in a LOOOOONG time. I’m trying to “catch up”. Feels like I’m always doing that. LOL.

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    Melissa Reply:

    So good to see you, Tracy! Like you, I feel that I, too, am always playing catch up.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Wow, that was a stroke of luck that tire held for your trip. It’s all too easy to imagine coming down one of these winding mountain roads and having a tire blow. Yikes! The thought of a tire blowing or something in the front end snapping always makes me a little giddy coming down the 17 from Flag or Sedona with the camper on our truck. Rotted tires has happened to us once, when we were about half way up to Cottonwood. The highway started to feel like we were riding over bumps. We pulled over, because something was plainly wrong, and close inspection revealed the tires we’d gotten from a friend had split beneath the weight of the camper. Turns out they looked new, but had been sitting in this desert heat too long and the rubber had rotted.
    I agree, so many times I’m reading and the writer hasn’t set up the situation in a way that lets me accept ‘a stroke of luck’, and it comes off badly. Anything can be believable in a book, even convenience, if it’s set up right, but it takes skills, and um, maybe luck too (wink wink), as in a really good morning writing. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Cynthia -I know EXACTLY the spot to which you refer. When we had our motorcycle, I HATED that stretch of road and actually closed my eyes! Your camper tire story is so scary…

    Your point is so similar to Natalia’s – that the writer is responsible for setting up the situation to make the ‘luck’ acceptable to the reader. Such a difficult thing to do! Ha – yes, some luck is involved!

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Melissa – You and Betty have the best adventures! Between the two of you, you have tons of great experience to draw on and write from!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    I did not like that movie P.S. I Love You for the exact reasons you mention–too much luck and happenstance. I just couldn’t buy it.

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    Melissa Reply:

    OK, then I definitely won’t see that one! 🙂

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  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    Melissa, it’s not completely on point, but let me say I love the photos showing the open Arizona sky. It’s been a rough winter here on the East Coast, with a particularly rough stretch during my winter MFA residency in Vermont. How I miss the open sky of Arizona winters, vs. the oppressive cloud cover that accompanies the cold out here. Flat tires suck, but enjoy that clear blue sky!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I don’t think you’re off point at all. I’m happy when someone comments on the photos – and happy to share them. It takes me a lot of time to select the right ones and weave them into the story, so please – comment away! (And come back to Arizona to warm your feet!) The oppressive cloud cover of which you speak is EXACTLY why I moved from Lake-Erie-effect snow-laden NW Pennsylvania when I was 27. Bring on the SUN!

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  • avatar Susan Okaty Says:

    Melissa, I would definitely have reacted like you did. Made me laugh because I saw myself in you! As for driving on those dried out tires, yes, you were darn lucky. We’ve driven the roads between El Paso and Cloudcroft, New Mexico, and we know how desolate things can be. And NO gas stations!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh YES… some of those parts of New Mexico are SO remote! And so gorgeous.

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  • avatar Jackie Cangro Says:

    What a great post, Melissa. You are so right about happenstance in our stories feeling like a big no-no. I always tell my writing students to avoid deus ex-machina. I think we writers tend to fall to happenstance if we are in a sticky plot situation and don’t know how to work it out. Or – and this is one of my bugaboos – we like our characters too much to put them in harm’s way!

    The scenery around your home is absolutely stunning. I bet photos don’t even do it justice!

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  • avatar Lisa Ahn Says:

    Great story! I think I end up writing about luck (good and bad) often. It’s a concept that intrigues me, I guess. I think luck is often our interpretation, our way of making sense — making a story — out of events. The way I met my husband was lucky. I’d just quit the whole academia route, decided to move to DC, and met him because he happened to be visiting mutual friends on the same weekend. There were a lot of happenstance events that lined up in perfect formation. Luck? Fate? Life? Or just a good story.

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  • avatar Lori P Says:

    ha! New shoes!!! =) Once my girlfriends and I were stranded on a highway with an empty tank of gas (I was NOT the driver!) and were rescued by a truck-driver (pre cell phone days). I remember climbing up into the cab thinking how my mother was going to KILL ME if he didn’t kill us first. In reality he dropped us off at the nearest gas station about four miles away – The End. But I did check to see if he had a “hook for a hand” like in Adventures in Babysitting.

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