Saturday, 5 July 2014

How to Detect the Clank of the Deus Ex Machina

There comes a point in almost every rewrite of a draft one manuscript when you suddenly become aware your internal Writing Satnav/GPS is yelling at you. Not the normal sort of yelling, where they're just giving you instructions like "continue with this POV until the next plot twist" in that slightly bored and disjointed voice they do so well, but the loud, insistent scream of "do a U-turn NOW or you're gonna dump this story over the edge of a cliff!"

Y'see the wonderful thing about a draft one is that anything goes in terms of making your characters Get Important Stuff Done. They can temporarily be Superman, McGyver and Gandalf the White all rolled into one if that's what it takes to move your story from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, because you're still in the figuring out stage and "the rest of the story can't happen unless they do this thing and shuddup okay I haven't got time to think about it I just wanna get this done dammit!" In essence, you roll out the Deus Ex Machina.

Translated as 'The God in the Machine,' a Deus Ex Machina was a plot device employed in Greek tragedies, when the audience loved nothing more than tales of piddly little humans getting repeatedly kicked in the 'nads by the awfulness of their piddly little lives until some random Greek God dropped down from the sky and fixed everything in the last three minutes of the show. (In these stage productions, the actors playing said gods were literally dropped on wires through a trapdoor in the ceiling to perform the obligatory last-minute miracle. In a world that had yet to acquire a 'Die Hard'-ing Bruce Willis, this was the best they could manage.)

Draft ones of manuscripts are the perfect place to slap Deus Ex Machinas; it's how many draft ones get completed at all. But when draft two and beyond rolls around you can't get away with that sort of nonsense anymore. Stuff has to make sense. You need to make sure that, when it comes to solving problems and moving the plot forward, your characters aren't using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - or, even worse, an inexplicably-acquired magic nut to destroy a sledgehammer. And if such a thing occurs, it often occurs more than once. Like that thing they say about a butterfly beating its wings causing major disasters on the other side of the world, one such doof-up can have knock-on effect on several other areas of your story, amplifying the doofiness of each subsequent doof-up until your precious draft one begins to look like the work of a lunatic.

This week, at the two-thirds-through mark of my current w-i-p The Renegades, I reached that point.

As I began rewriting Chapter 22, I realised there was some major information that needed to be given earlier in the story if what occurred from this point on was going to make any sense. Which meant a pretty intensive re-write of Chapter 18 - the only place where including that information would be sensible and flow naturally from the events described. And as I started doing that, I began to see holes in other areas too, until the crucial Grand Plan of my protagonist and her two comrades-in-arms began to look distinctly colander-like in terms of its ability to hold water.

I sighed. I head-desked. I ate cake ('works when you're happy, works when you're sad - the all-purpose mind-medicine!') And then I decided that the only way to fix it - and at the same time catch any other giant doof-ups that may still be lurking elsewhere in my story - was to draw up a list of hard questions to ask myself. Put every one of my plot points on trial and see if they made the grade. And here is the list I came up with. The Renegades is a sci-fi story, which is why I need to focus heavily on technical details, but there's no reason why this list couldn't work for other genres too:

1 - Would this course of action actually achieve the desired result?
This is the first question because it's the most obvious. Are the characters - with all their strengths and weaknesses  - actually capable of doing what's required? Does this thing they're trying to do comply with what's physically/scientifically possible in their world? How could things go wrong, and how plausible is it that they could still achieve their goal a) without anything going wrong or b) by adjusting to a Plan B 'on the fly' if things did go wrong?

2 - Is this course of action the easiest/safest way to achieve the desired result?
Because characters don't care what makes the plot funkier; they just want to do what they want to do. In real life we don't generally pick the hardest and most dangerous way to do something, and if a story is to make sense to readers then the characters shouldn't either. So if your heroine is creeping up behind a burly security guard and doing a Vulcan Death-Grip on him, hacking into the security system to bypass the locks, and then taking out another couple of security guards before escaping through the front entrance of an underground complex - when instead she could just sneak out of an unguarded back door and run like heck... well, it might be more exciting, but it's ludicrous. Forget the action-thriller whizz-bangs and let characters behave like someone with common sense.

3 - And they're doing this thing... why, again?
There are only two reasons people in real life do something they don't need to do; if it's enjoyable, or if they believe they can't avoid doing it. The same should be true of characters in stories. This applies to the big, game-changing actions taken and the smaller efforts that help towards achieving the big goals (those times when a major action can't be completed until a series of minor ones are done.) Both can suddenly become redundant with even the smallest of plot changes elsewhere in the story, so it's worth going back and checking to see if they're still relevant when such changes occur. Do those characters really still need to do that slightly random midnight raid that contributes nothing to their current objective at all? Or is Cackling Overlord Author only making them do that, so they will 'accidentally' find the secret thing they didn't even know existed but just so happens to reveal some really vital plot information? Don't be that author. Readers will snigger at you and call you names behind your back.

4 - Why are they doing this thing NOW? What stopped them doing it BEFORE now?
If they're doing what they're doing now in response to a situation they were aware of ages ago, what changed to make that happen? The answer can't be 'nothing,' because that just makes your characters look like apathetic chumps. Action should always be followed in quick succession by reaction, and even if that reaction is to do nothing, the reasons for that should be logical within the context of your story - along with any reasons for them to change their mind at a later date. The same rules apply when it comes to characters with special skills or magical powers. The reader has to know about them as soon as the character is aware of them - and from that point on, they're a tool in their toolbox, to be used whenever any person with an ounce of intelligence would use them to make their life that little bit easier. No saving them up for an oh-so-convenient, one-night-only appearance in the Final Showdown Moment - "Oh I remember - I can shoot burning jets of fire from my hands! Well thank goodness I finally realised that  just now, as I'm fighting the Deadly Ice Troll we've been hunting through The Frozen Wastes for nearly three-quarters of this tale! Doh - now I think about it, I could've used that on all his icy minions on the way here as well... silly old me, eh?"

5 - And they still think this is a good idea, right?
Sometimes, in the name of building the tension and moving the plot forward, characters have to do completely the wrong thing. Make really bad decisions, horribly misjudge a person or situation or take a risk  on impulse and have it not pay off in the worst possible way. Your readers might see the disaster coming way in advance, fighting the urge to scream "nooo, you raving idiots, that's the worst thing you could possibly do..!" as your characters blunder towards the inevitable snake pit - but your characters definitely shouldn't. People don't generally choose to do stuff that's going to mess their lives up. If you're gonna make your characters do a dumb thing, they have to have damn good reasons for not thinking it's a dumb thing, and those reasons have to be crystal clear to the reader. If your character has clearly stated he has an acute phobia of snakes, that's not going to go away without intensive therapy - so you can't suddenly - and purely for the purpose of fulfilling your plot obligations - make him read an advert in the local paper for a job as a snake-charmer and say "Ooh, I'll go for that! I mean, I know I'm terrified of snakes... but I'll muddle through, I'm sure!"

I'm applying these questions to my w-i-p as of now - and it's already given me things to think about. Have I left anything out that could be added to this list? What are your experiences of extracting the Deus Ex Machina from your work? I'd love to know.


  1. This is an AWESOME list of questions, Wendy! Love it.

    I have stumbled over each of those problems on my first revision, and corrected them. It's absolutely vital to write characters with common sense, who avoid complex and unnecessarily dangerous courses of action, who don't blindly believe or follow shifty people and risk everything for a minor win.

  2. Thanks Veronica!

    My latest 'oh-crap-better-go-back-and-rewrite that' moment has been a classic Number #2 on the list (both literally and metaphorically.) A case of my characters trying to do Mission Impossible, when all they really needed to do was "blow the bloody doors off." But sometimes you just gotta go backwards to fix things :)