Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Deus ex Machina

Picture this. On page 288 of a 289-page book, Cali is besieged. Sharks below. Jellyfish at the surface. Copters armed with assault rifles above. But wait! Look! Out of nowhere, a boat materializes on the horizon. Whew. We’re relieved she’s safe, but—uh, why? What conveniently brought this rescue at exactly the right moment?

A miraculous intervention, that’s what. As Aristotle observed in the Poetics (about 335 BC), the solution must be “necessary or probable” rather than a “contrivance.”

He referred, quite literally, to a device used in ancient drama. A trapdoor opened, releasing a machine of the gods (deus ex machina). It rescued whoever perhaps deserved it—but not due to personal assets or forethought. In other words: an artificial escape from dire straits.

And that’s just the problem. Successful endings build from characteristics, opportunities, and possibilities that the author foreshadowed, preferably in the first chapter. As Robert McKee put it in, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives...Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.

That’s a heavy indictment. Also an entirely true one. Story, whether Greek tragedy or contemporary urban fantasy, is an inherently moral art form. Certainly it’s about entertainment. Fiction we don’t enjoy is only for the classroom (and maybe not even there). The primary purpose of most stories is still a moral one. How can that possibly happen if either the protagonist—or the novelist—relies on a perfectly timed, perfectly improbable miracle?

Yet plenty of worthy writers have resorted to this or something resembling it. There’s Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, John Gay, Moliere, Charles Dickens, William Golding, and J. R. R. Tolkien. That’s not the point. Why use it unless you must? Here’s how you needn’t.

~ Foreshadow.
            At least once, hint at any trait, character, or device you’ll need later on.

~ Supply almost but not quite hidden strengths.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Boo have qualities they’ll use later on. Because that’s set up in advance, nothing feels like cheating.

~ Use character arc.
What drives fiction? Struggle induces the protagonist to learn and develop. What earns a happy ending? The protagonist deserves it. Isn’t that more fun than the miraculous save?

~ Let the journey resolve the journey.
The ending should come from how each mistake or misstep or act of profound selfishness prepared the protagonist for this moment. What’s moving or memorable about a well-armed boat materializing out of nowhere?

Tip: Give your readers the pleasure of an earned rather than contrived ending.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Such Stuff as Scenes are Made on

In the fourth act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician protagonist says:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Scholars disagree about exactly what has “ended.” Magic? Story? Wakefulness? Life? In any case, Prospero advises that wisdom—and story—intertwine reality and magic. Of course Prospero didn’t add that story blends scene (live-time presentation) with summary (abbreviation of the less dramatic, supporting parts). Yet that mix is a huge part of story magic.

Alas, it doesn’t always happen. Novelists find it easier to condense drama as summary and expand the mundane into scene. But that gets readers thinking about “little lives” and “sleep.” Make your readers happy by plotting with a combination of scene and summary.

~ Hook readers at both ends of the scene.
Though readers want some setting pretty quickly, push the hook as close to the first sentence as you can. It’s not just for readers. When scenes never get off the ground, it’s because the writer knew neither the source of the tension nor where it was headed.

~ Show how the scene advances the protagonist’s arc.
Never let a central character exit a scene unchanged.

~ Create palpable adversity.
If the characters merely shrug and agree to disagree, this shouldn’t be a scene. Raise the
stakes. A lot. Raise them with someone actually doing something.

~ Save scenes for high drama.
Most adults have coffee and drive away in their cars every weekday. Do readers truly want to encounter this over and over? If you need it at all, do it as summary.

~ Develop skill with summary.
Efficiency isn’t inherently tedious. In fact, done properly, quite the opposite. But until you compose intriguing summaries, you’ll put everything in scene. Here’s how to keep your voice when writing summary.

·         View this as a skill—one you can learn. You mostly just need practice.
·         Trace the passage of time with character emotion.
·         Choose specific, concrete language.
·         Emphasize how one event caused the next.
·         Set up the next conflict.

Tip: A mix of scene and summary is the stuff that fiction’s made on.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Look up “otherworldly,” and you’ll find lots on astral projection and interstellar travel. But good fiction is always “otherworldly,” even when it transports us to a world much like our own. As N.K. Jemisin put it in the N.Y.T. Book Review, “Beautiful writing just isn’t enough to save any story from overfamiliarity.”

Fiction transcends the familiar by altering the view. That might be an imaginary world, or simply the transformation of our own: deep penetration of one mind, the exquisite discovery of complexity in the apparently simple, or simplicity in the apparently complex.

What’s the source of this? The camouflaging and exposing of the novelist’s psyche:

Both candor and disguise are valid—even indispensable—ways of approaching the secret life in literature, and both can result in great art, though I believe disguise improves your chances, because the less you rely on autobiographical fact, the more your imagination is of necessity invoked. – David Jauss, “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life”

Fiction says the unsayable through characters enacting plot. Caroline Gordon is right that “A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.”

Only the merger of acute insight with fantastical invention can express those truths. You’ll need:

~ Groundwork.
Probe. Investigate. Observe yourself and others. Discard the rose-colored glasses. Gather the facts. It starts there.

~ Persona.
Create a narrator who represents the wisest, funniest, most objective and articulate version of yourself. You don’t get to comment in your novel. But without guidance, readers get muddled. To help them out, you don a mask. This transforms you into a narrator who escorts readers along the journey your novel captures.

~ Characterization.
The best characters are more credible than real people, even if they’re born on Saturnalia. These characters entice because they’re more driven, coherent, determined, and multi-dimensional than the people who inspired them.

~ Imagination.
It’s about compassion as much as originality. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene said, “Hate is a lack of imagination.” Only imagination lets us grasp how the other guy feels. That’s why J.K. Rowling called it “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

With or without aliens, wizards, or auras, find a way to think differently. So your readers can. Albert Einstein noted that “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” That’s as true for novelists as physicists. Logical coherence is indispensable to every world. Beyond that lies the otherworldly thrill of possibility.

Tip: “Otherworldly” should apply to language, plot, characterization, and setting in every novel.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


“Overwrought.” Since its first meaning is over-stimulated to the point of hysteria, we associate this word more with behavior than language. Yet “overwrought” also defines purple prose— phrasing that’s ostentatious, gaudy, pompous, self-conscious, self-indulgent, and likely to drive readers nuts.

Tip: Overblown language isn’t lively or original; it’s excessive and irritating.

To illustrate, I could choose from hundreds of classical or contemporary disasters. Instead, I tactfully offer hyperbole of my own making:

The few faint, final, fluttery wand-like wisps of the dying sun’s peach, mauve, and magenta rays whispered past the stony-faced mountains, majestic mountains unmoved by the sky’s pyrotechnics as it sank, ever more slowly, toward its well-deserved rest. The scene’s serenity reminded the still-heartbroken widow of all she had lost. Never again would she savor his tender caress, his musical laughter, his powerful arms. No! The love they’d had was lost forever. No, no, no! As the thickening twilight besieged her, no one anywhere in the world yearned with greater anguish, or wept with more acrid acerbity.

Let’s examine “overwrought,” one issue at a time.

~ Lighten up on colors, especially esoteric ones like peach, mauve, or magenta.

~Exercise caution with the familiar, including the heavy-handed symbolism of the setting sun.
There’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is more hilarious than threatening.

~ Avoid personification, or attributing human characteristics to anything inhuman.
Does the sunset actually “whisper”? Are those mountains more moved by sunrise than sunset? Does the sun really need a rest? Deserve one? Can twilight “besiege”?

~ Insinuate sound echoes.
A little alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds, goes a long way. Bombard
 with poetic devices, and you’ll move readers to laughter instead of tears.

~ Understate.
A widow watching the sun set already verges on melodrama. That means you can’t have clichés, exclamation points, turgid pace, vapid generalizations, or annoying repetition.

~ Eliminate arcane or abstract language.
Certain words achieve neither invisibility nor imagery. The paragraph above is full of them: “savor,” “forever,” “yearned,” and “anguish.” This language diminishes rather than intensifies the moment.

Replace oversimplified judgments like “tender caress,” “musical laughter,” and “powerful arms” with original imagery.

“A discerning eye needs only a hint, and understatement leaves the imagination free to build its own elaborations.” -- Russell Page

One concrete, apt suggestion is worth a hundred tired, redundant, overblown details.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Character Appeal

Like sex appeal, you can get the job done lots of ways. That’s good, because character appeal is as crucial to novels as sex appeal to budding romance. No spark? Seek electricity elsewhere.

Just as horrid breath or greasy hair swiftly drove off potential mates, certain openings send readers into the arms of another choice. These are unlovable creations:

~ The wimp.

Protagonists need to emerge, mature, grow. But a hapless, sheepish, or pathetic central character can’t engage readers long enough to watch the magic happen.

~ The grouch.

Life is full of icky people. Can’t be helped. Fiction promises to let us escape all that. Make that promise on your opening page, if not your opening paragraph.

~ The team where every member’s a loser.

Readers want to root for somebody. If every character seems boring, stereotypical, sad, terrified, or nasty, again, no matter how much one of them develops, it’s too little too late.

Jo Walton admits that, “I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.” When fiction’s characters are well done, many of us do. How does a novelist achieve that? And right away?

ü  Defy expectations.

            The muscular hero is vulnerable, the pale princess strong and feisty. Switcheroo.

ü  Make everyone multi-dimensional.

Readers must despise something about the protagonist and applaud something about the antagonist: “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” – John Rogers

ü  Breed empathy.

When emotion is original and complex rather than simplistic and manipulative, we cheer with winners and despair with victims. Emphasize commonality: “These emotions–fear, pain, doubt–are part of the human condition. If your hero is impervious to them, it is harder to understand them and harder to imagine ourselves as them.” – Tristan Gregory

ü  Create resilient resourcefulness.

“You cannot have an effective protagonist who simply responds to events happening around him or her. Your protagonist must act, not just react.” -- Rachelle Gardner

Not easy to do. But don’t we write fiction in order to accompany dynamic characters?

Tip: Fiction follows characters, so create at least one whom readers want to follow.