Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Leave Rabbits and Top Hats to Magicians

Don't you want to scream when you're reading a terrific, suspenseful, well-written and well-edited book, and the characters get into an impossible situation, and you can't wait to see what the author came up with, and (take a breath) . . . voila! . . . magic! Suddenly, out of nowhere, they are saved. By something utterly unbelievable.

(Castle fans will know what I'm talking about, if they watched the other night.)

This contrived plot device is known as deus ex machina. And it's something to be avoided, unless you're a fantasy writer and then I think you can pretty much get away with anything.

Research in to autopsies and toxicology screens tore a hole in an important part of my plot, requiring re-thinking (and I'm not always good at thinking in the first place) and re-twisting (ditto). While Stephen King may be able to do all of his research after he's written the book, I find I need to get the big stuff taken care of early.

So I've spent the last few days working on a scene where two of my characters come to a conclusion based on events and information that occur in previous chapters. Although nothing was contrived, it was important to me that their conclusion be logical and not merely a plot device. My thanks to my trusted writing friends who pushed and punched me into giving the scene the meat it needed, hopefully without creating a boring information dump. I'm pretty sure it's a lot closer now than when I first asked them to take a look.

What about you? Have you ever been tempted to employ a deus ex machina? Do you remember the last one you read?

CR: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Great post, Peg! And, being a member of the crime scene writers group where you got some of this help, I am aware of some of what you worked on.

    And, I love your new blogger profile picture! Wish I was that photogenic. Sigh.

  2. This fantasy writer has tried to avoid it. In fact I try to keep my escape mechanisms purely character-driven. But I'm not high fantasy. Those guys can make it up on the fly. They don't need science or logic. Maybe in their world those things don't exist! When I put my characters into those seemingly no-win situations, I pretty much know that someone is going to have to sacrifice something (whether it's a limb, a life, or their heart) to get them out of the situation. Otherwise, no one ever believes me when they survive it.

    It's not a book, but a lot of scifi TV is bad about this. See a lot of the later episodes of Stargate SG-1. How many times can the little gray aliens beam you out of that foxhole?!


  3. Peg, Crime Scene Writers is a great resource, isn't it? Turns out, I still need to do some revising. I'll get that taken care of tomorrow. I'm not very photogenic. It takes a gazillion of pics to find one that's halfway suitable. I love the delete key on digital cameras!

    Tara, I enjoy a well-written fantasy. It sounds like you treat your readers with a little respect. Wahoo! LoML is a full-on SF/F fan, at least as far as television is concerned, from way back to the original Star Trek series. He will suspend belief for the sake of the story . . . but only for so long.

  4. I can't remember the last one I read, but I will never forget the one that ticked me off the most-Stephen King's Hand of God at the end of The Stand. LOVED that book right up until he wrote himself into a corner and obviously couldn't come up with a logical way out of it. Soooo disappointing and frustrating. I would have thrown his book across the room, but being a King novel, I didn't have a catapult.