Happy February, everyone. To start off this month, we have part two of Tia Kalla’s question. For those who haven’t read yesterday’s post, Tia (@tiakall) tweeted me the question:
“@JessicaDall Any good advice for plothole/ending problem solving?”
Since we ended January talking about plot holes, today we’ll be talking about tricky endings.
Now, I completely understand why Tia grouped these two concepts into one question. Where plot holes are a problem with something integral to the story, ending problems are just what they sound like…problems when you get to the all important climax and conclusion (or denouement, if you want to be fancy) of your story.
Unlike a plot hole, where you have a character/situation that doesn’t make sense or is in someway against the rules of your universe/personality of your character, what you generally find with ending problems are that you’ve written the rest of the story in a way that makes it so you can’t find a way to solve the problem you have spent the entire story building up.
For example, your Main Character is caught in the Big Baddy’s secret hideout with all his/her friends locked up and no way out. Now, if your Main Character is James Bond, they’ll figure out some crazy escape that works. Far too often, though, authors find themselves flailing trying to figure out just how they’re going to write their way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
And this is where you have to be careful not to fall into the most dreaded ending fix. The Deus Ex Machina.
What, you ask, is a Deus Ex Machina? A latin phrase that translates to something like “God out of the machine” my dear friend Wikipedia defines it “as a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.”
From what I remember of Drama 101 in college, Deus Ex Machinas (yeah, yeah dei ex machina, but Latin plurals are crazy) abound in the Ancient Greek Playwright, Euripides’, plays, such as an example in the play Medea, where perhaps the original “hell hath no fury” woman has slaughtered her infant sons in revenge for her husband, Jason (of Argonaut fame) leaving her for another woman. Children freshly killed, Jason comes to punish (read: kill) Medea for her crime and has her there, just about as defenseless as possible, dead sons nearby, ready to pop her head off. Escape seems impossible for poor (read: completely insane) Medea, so how is Euripides going to write himself out of this? Is he going to let her die?
Spoiler Alert: No, that would just be completely understandable for the plot. He wants Medea to live. And so the chariot of the Sun God, Helios, comes down on stage (by mechanical means) and pulls her out of her predicament. Quite literally, a God in a machine saving Medea and solving Euripides’ plot problem.
Now, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a modern-day book which uses Deus Ex Machina quite so literally as Euripides (does anyone have an example of God coming down in a chariot and fixing everything at the last minute?) but that doesn’t mean that seemingly unsolvable problems aren’t “suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object” in modern-day works.
Perhaps the most blatant of these moments are in situations where one of the main characters “suddenly” finds out that they had some power that has long been dormant that they only find out about just as everything seems hopeless. Often times this is found in stories with “Mary Sue” characters. Though Mary Sues are a controversial and a poorly defined occurence in fiction (which I’ll get into at some point in a later blog post) the overly-idealized Sueish character often find some magical way to save the day when all seems lost because of their perfect selves.
Like one of the suggestions for fixing plot holes in yesterday’s post stated, you should not to throw in things that are going to be important to the plot too late in. If you’re going to have something that is important come in later, try to touch on it before that exact point where it’s needed. Even if it isn’t a fix-all, knowing that the main character has the ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound when threatened is better than having it just suddenly happen at the climax of the story.
And that’s what makes Deus Ex Machinas so annoying. They feel like a cop out. You’ve spent however long reading a novel, or sat for however long in a theatre, have invested yourself in the plot and story, and just when you’re supposed to get the pay off – see how it all comes together – you find that there’s a proverbial “get out of jail free” card that makes the rest of the story not mean much. If the main character could have used their super-awesome teleporting skills right at the beginning, you wouldn’t have needed the entire middle of the story where they’re struggling through. So why did you have to read that part at all? If the wizard could have sent out that spell that just traveled halfway around the world to kill the Big Baddy, why the heck didn’t he?
So how do you avoid a Deus Ex Machina situation?
Like other general plot holes, it can help to outline before hand, or put in something that makes it so they aren’t saved at the possible last second by something that makes the rest of the book useless… But, truly, the most important thing in avoiding Deus Ex Machina is to spend some time thinking about your characters, thinking about how they would react to any given situation (when they don’t have a hope of lightning striking down the Big Baddy, or God dropping down), and not to worry about making your story “more exciting” by building up the danger they’re facing to the point where there’s simply no way they can get out of it without said lightening bolt from the heavens. Even with a little less danger, if you’re able to stay within the logic of your story, and have your characters stay, well, in character, it’s going to be a much more interesting, much better story than it would be by saving them by something out of nowhere that leaves the reader wondering what the point was if that’s the end.
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