In 1881, famed American lawman Wyatt Earp and his posse engaged several Cowboy outlaws at a creek called Iron Springs. The gunfight was brief and bloody, with Earp killing several of the outlaws with his shotgun and revolver.
However, this gunfight is not remembered for Earp’s good aim, but for the pure luck that aided his survival. During the fight, the outlaws focused most of their gunfire on Earp, and according to biographer John Flood:
“The saddle-horn had been splintered, his coat hung in shreds, there were three holes through the legs of his trousers, five holes through the crown of his sombrero, and three through the brim.”
What else can be said about a man who was shot through the hat, coat, and pants but was never once struck except that he had extraordinarily good luck?
I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I wanted to write about again using a real life example. Writers and editors often eschew a story in which a character seems to get out of a bind by nothing but good fortune. And for good reason. Luck can be seen as lazy, or a “deus ex machina”.
But is it really such a cardinal sin if used judiciously?
As we see above, pure luck most certainly exists in real life, and can be credited with many lives saved. And as I mentioned in my last blog post on this topic, no less an author than the legendary J.R.R. Tolkien made liberal use of luck in his masterpiece The Hobbit. In one of the most famous and beloved scenes in all of literature, Riddles in the Dark, the protagonist Bilbo Baggins evades a ghastly murder at the hands of Gollum not once, not twice, but three times!
And you know what saved him each time? In Tolkien’s own words: Bilbo’s extraordinary luck. It was lucky that a fish, the answer to one of Gollum’s riddles, jumped out of the water when it did, serving as a clue to Bilbo. It was lucky Bilbo shrieked “Time!” rather than “Give me more time!”, for time was the answer to another riddle. And it was lucky that the ring slipped onto Bilbo’s finger as he fell while fleeing Gollum, turning him invisible.
This is not to say that as a writer you can fill your books with lucky breaks and no reasonable explanations. Nor does it mean you can write yourself into any corner you want without care. But if once in a while your protagonist evades capture or death by a lucky stroke…so what? Luck saved real-life legend Wyatt Earp and one of literature’s most legendary protagonists.
What do you think? As a reader, does a lucky break bother you? As a writer, do you avoid fortuitous circumstances at all costs? Let me know in the comments!