Imagine a movie scene from the seventies or eighties– a car veers out of control over the edge of a cliff and tumbles end-over-end finally exploding at the bottom of the ravine. We’ll never know who that unfortunate driver was. Only it doesn’t really happen that way. The MythBusters sent several cars careening over cliffs (sans driver) but they couldn’t get one to explode, even when they damaged the gas tank. Writers are sometimes under the illusion that an exciting event like sending a car tumbling over a cliff will create a bang in their story, only to have it fizzle out just like the cars failing to explode for the MythBusters.
Comparing car wrecks from different stories, might help show which elements are necessary to generate tension. For example, I recall slamming on the brakes on a wet road water and sliding off it in a spin. As the car swung around, I didn’t know when it would strike something, when the excruciating pain would come, or if I would even survive. Fortunately, the car hit nothing. Even though the axle was damaged, I was not hurt. However, I still have the sense of the seconds stretching interminably.
Then, I read a description of a car wreck that echoed my sensations with more intensity. The author took the time to present the wreck as perceived–noting the loose change and compacts disc catapulting through the interior of the car, the smell of burning rubber, the thudding crunch of metal crumpling, and the moan of the passenger in the next seat. This stretched the reader to piece together the total event from many details. This event would turn one person’s life inside out — the one that survived.
But, many of the car wrecks I’ve read have been quickly sketched in pastel colors and too soft to seem real. The aftershocks of the horrible wreck which left a sole survivor was described in the same vagueness, The author’s constant reminders that the protagonist was really hurt by the loss of her entire family was almost humorous because the pain was lacking from the plot. Instead, this enviable, tough woman just kept on going with little to no struggle. The main character needs a challenge stretching them to the point in which the reader doesn’t know whether or not the protagonist can cope.
A most famous literary car accident wasn’t a dramatic car rolling down a cliff, but a collision between a car and a human that lasted less than a minute in the novel but caused everything to unwind. The resulting ironic twists made this accident in The Great Gatsby important. Tension arose due to the nature of the personal relationships and the practice of deception that permeated the life of the wealthy class. Jay Gatsby pretended to have been the driver, while his lover had no idea that she had hit and killed her own husband’s mistress. The cover-up leads to the crisis that ends the story.
The description of the car accident has to strike a chord of reality in the reader. But, the total impact of the accident on the story is more important. Otherwise a quick car wreck is a hook that offers excitement but leads the reader into a ditch. And, readers don’t want to be left in a plot that fails to explode at the bottom of the ravine.