Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Words! Anna Buttimore (Honeymoon Heist) has blogged lately about words she dislikes (swearing) and words that just feel good to say. Most writers I know have a bit of love/hate relationship with words and I'm no exception. One word I like to use is also one that I consider a plot killer. Try saying deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina has a literal meaning something like mechanical god. It comes from ancient Greek plays where the characters would get themselves in all kinds of trouble, then a "god" would be mechanically lowered via ropes to rescue the protagonist from the villain and/or evil.

Unfortunately this device still shows up on occasion in modern novels. When I was a member of the Romance Writers of America, I often heard this type of resolution to a romance dilemma referred to as the "man or a miracle" resolution and it poked fun at the heroine that had to be rescued from a threatening situation by the male hero or some type of miraculous intervention. In other novels we see deus ex machina occur when some insignificant character, a brand new character, a coincidence, or a heavenly manifestation provides a rescue for the protagonist. That may happen in real life, but there are a lot of things that happen in real life that don't work well in fiction.

When outside intervention or a miracle resolves the conflict, the reader is left feeling cheated. Yes, miracles occur in real life and can be used to help bring about the resolution (think prayer, inspiration, the discovery of a possible solution), but should not upstage the protagonist to the point he or she has no part in saving him or herself. That's what protagonists, heroes, and heroines are all about; growing, stretching, persisting, out smarting, exercising faith, etc. That's one of the vicarious thrills of reading, being able to identify with someone like ourselves who succeeds against tough odds.

Today's reader expects the protagonist to dig deep and find his/her own strength or solution. This strength may include faith, the will to live, determination to save someone else, intellectual prowess, or countless other forms of physical or emotional strengths. No more cavalry to the rescue. No more helpless heroines. Yes, the protagonists can receive help through insight, by aiding each other, from an outside source that is already a pertinent part of the story, through the use of a devise already introduced, but never because the author has written him/herself into a corner and can't think of anything better than a miracle to effect a rescue.

I was part of a group once where someone asked Dan Yates what he thought was the most important element in writing a novel. His answer? "Words!" I've always kind of liked that answer. Words are the bricks and mortar of a novel, but the words that define what we do with those words make the difference between whether the end result is a story or a shopping list.

One more week for this month's Wish List contest.  I'm giving away two copies of my new book If I Should Die or another LDs novel from your wish list if you already have my bookComment on any of this month's posts or any of my Meridian reviews. Each comment is an entry.


Rebecca Talley said...

I was guilty of using this device with my first novel, though at the time I had no idea it was a bad thing to do. That's just how the story popped into my head. I can now see why it's problematic--we want characters who solve their own problems without being "saved."

Thanks for your post!

Mindi said...

Love this post, Jennie. I've read some books that do this and it drives me crazy. females aren't helpless because they are female. They have brains and I hate to see them treated as though they are inferior. Yes, sometimes you need a man - but it's for support to help you through the problem most of the time, not to "save" you from it. I hope this makes sense - it's late! :-)

Steve Westover said...

Excellent post. We see this quite a bit and it always frustrates me. Congrats on your new release!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Great post. I always feel like I've wasted my time when the book uses deus ex machina. It's annoying! I'm glad other people think so, too. :)

Mary Ann said...

In my first novel I used this twice. Needless to say it is still in revision. I look forward to learning from you!

Janet Kay Jensen said...

It would be so much more convenient to have an angel descend and straighten everything out, tying it up with a perky bow. It is a cop-out, of course, and cheats the reader. I love a book that does bring some conclusions to major storylines but leaves others up to the readers to determine. After all, our readers are very sharp and I wouldn't want to underestimate them.

In my current WIP I am truly not sure what one character has decided to do at the end. I know what I'd like her to do, but I'm not sure she will. And I'm leaving it that way. There's a good case for each side and I'd like the reader to weigh in.