Car Accidents In Fiction: Always Cliché or Sometimes OK?

A scene from “The Door in the Floor,” the film adaptation of John Irving’s “A Widow For One Year.”

Car accidents happen and, unfortunately, lots of people die in them. In 2009, nearly 34,000 people died in car accidents in the United States (US Census Bureau Statistic). Chances are that you’re aware of someone who has died in a car. It’s a sad and common occurrence.

Because car accidents are so common, they’re plausible in fiction. I say plausible but I hesitate to say believable because, while car accidents are possible for our fictional characters, believability depends on the context. Used well, a car accident can contribute to some larger theme; used poorly, it becomes a deus ex machina, dropped into the story because the author couldn’t think of something better.

This issue came up during a discussion of a workshop member’s story. In the story, the protagonist dies in a car accident. Workshop participants had mixed feelings about this scene. Some felt the accident packed an emotional punch and made the story poignant; others felt it was too abrupt and cut off some meaningful character development. (For the record, the story was very strong—discussions like this speak to the story’s merit.)

From there, the discussion moved to other tragic car accidents in literature. Perhaps the most well-known is the accident in The Great Gatsby. It’s an accident that represents the culmination of the carefree and reckless lifestyle of the characters in the novel and, therefore, serves some meaningful purpose. (Of course, in the 1920s and 30s, car accidents, like the car itself, were relatively new. Now we sort of accept them as part of the usual risk we take when we drive. We gawk at them as we drive by; we’re not as horrified as we once were.)

John Irving’s novels also came up during the discussion. In A Widow For One Year, a family still suffers from having lost two sons in a car accident. The accident is a pivot point for the novel—without this central tragedy, the novel couldn’t have existed. One wonders, though, if this tragedy could’ve been anything—a chainsaw accident, perhaps, or a skiing mishap. Did it really have to be a car accident?

Perhaps in A Widow for One Year, it doesn’t matter what kind of accident it was. But in Irving’s The World According to Garp, a car accident serves as a perfect place for a particular kind of injury. A boy loses his eye and, later on, claims to be able to see his dead brother with his missing eye. But the context of this accident—why the car was where it was—makes the automobile the perfect place for this mishap.

But now that we’ve read Gatsby and Garp and countless other stories with car accidents, have we seen enough? Can fiction move beyond the car accident to other, better, more thematically relevant ways to die? Should it?

I don’t have the answers here. But for my own writing, I feel compelled to avoid them, simply because they’ve been done so many times before. The car accident is the obvious choice for killing a character or somehow forcing a twist in a storyline. But if I want to surprise my readers, I will search for something a little more unexpected.