A while ago I wrote a piece about Dei ex Machina (singular: Deus ex Machina), an inadvisable plot device where–when all else is lost and the protagonist is backed into a corner–something comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from an otherwise hopeless situation. Meaning “god from the machine” dei ex machina get their name from Euripides’ play Medea where a god (in a mechanical chariot) quite literally comes down at the end of the play to life the titular Medea out of the mess that forms at the end of the play.
While you don’t generally see gods popping up to fix everything in modern literature, the plot device has kept its name, generally seen these days when a character suddenly develops a magical power they didn’t know about at the climax (oh yeah! She totally has the ability to teleport right when there’s no other way out of this corner I’ve written myself into) or less flashy acts of god (He’s about to be killed, but oh! A tree branch fell on the bad guy. The end). While I have already addressed Dei ex Machina specifically, more and more while editing/critiquing/reviewing, I have begun to see Deus ex Machina’s less offensive cousin in stories, the “Oh yeah, this is important” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way, but work with me).
Perhaps related to both foreshadowing and fixing deus ex machina, writers should always keep one thing in mind: If it’s going to be important later, mention it when it might pop up logically before you need it.
- If your character is going to need to teleport out of the climax, show that they can teleport earlier on.
- If your character is going to use a “prop” later in a scene, show they have it with them the scene before.
- If your character has done something that doesn’t really make sense, don’t later explain why it makes sense three chapters in.
I understand why these things happen (especially points two and three) while authors often have climaxes planned out and know to avoid using a deus ex machina, when writing quickly (cough, NaNoWriMo, cough) sometimes you realize later on you haven’t explained something you meant to or you need something in a scene you didn’t of until the moment you need it.
What you don’t want to do, however is end up with something like:
- He pulled out his glasses, which he had put in his backpack that morning before leaving the house
- [after a chapter of helping someone it makes no sense to in a zombie apocalypse] But she had always had a softness for people who limped. It made sense she couldn’t leave him behind.
Why? Because it makes those moments seem, at best, an afterthought, at worst, an author trying to write themselves out of a corner.
What should you do instead? Put the information in ahead of time where it logically fits.
Is your character going to need glasses he doesn’t generally bring with him later in the scene? Show him grabbing them on his way out the door the scene before. Is there an explanation for why your character is risking their life for someone they just met (which isn’t part of a larger reveal)? Put that information in when she decides to help them.
If there is a logical place for an event to happen/information to be placed, don’t put it where it will feel like an afterthought (or at least move it once you go back to edit if you’re still working on a rough draft). It’s a quick fix, and makes a world of difference to the reader (they don’t have to jump back and file that information away where it makes more sense themselves), the story (you don’t have to stop the action to explain, “oh yeah, this totally makes sense once you know X”), and your perceived ability as a writer (you don’t have a reader thinking “man, this writer had to throw something in at the last minute to make up for their poor planning”). Keep up with a little internal logical.