Avoid unearned story developments by paying close attention to causality
You’re familiar with deus ex machina, right?
It occurs when a sudden savior appears on the scene to get the characters of a story out of trouble.
The term comes from Greek theater, which occasionally used a crane (machine) to deliver a god to rescue someone from insurmountable trouble, hence, deus ex machina’s translation as “god from the machine.”
The resolution to the climax of Jurassic Park is classic deus ex machina.
Paleontologists Alan and Ellie, along with the kids Lex and Timmy, are running away from a group of clever velociraptors when they get cornered and all seems hopeless.
Then a T-Rex comes out of nowhere and grabs one of the velociraptors and draws the other two into battle, thereby allowing the four people to run out of the building just as Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough show up in a Jeep and give them a lift out of there.
If we’re being precise, actually, it’s a double deus ex machina. The Jeep rescue is often eclipsed by the more sensational T-Rex rescue, which we might call deus rex machina. Ha!
Deus ex machina is a straw man here. Nobody argues that it’s good. But let’s dig into why it’s problematic and see if we can get at some less obvious problems—many of which I see frequently in stories I edit.
When you employ the deus ex machina rescue, you undermine your characters’ intelligence and determination and heroism. Their being saved has nothing to do with their actions. It’s just dumb luck.
In the case of the T-Rex, it is completely random and unpredictable, an event absent of any causation rooted in character action.
In the case of the Jeep, it may be rooted in character action, but it’s still just stupidly lucky timing.
If you rescue your characters through coincidence or fate, you’re not allowing your story to turn on the main driver of all classic plots: causation.
A story is a big consequence machine. Problems go in, reactions come out. Reactions go in, problems or solutions come out. The reader wants to see cause/effect chains.
Yes, life is often more complex than simple cause/effect chains, and that’s why there are occasional fictions—most notably absurdist stories and comedies—that toy with causation. But we prefer to see cleaner-than-life cause/effect because we like to believe that’s how things work. In fact, for all intents and purposes, that is how we believe life works.
Story = survival
All survival—physical or otherwise—is a goal-driven occupation. You pursue the goal, despite whatever difficulties lie in your way, and you achieve your goal.
Storytelling is just survival in miniature: overcome obstacles to achieve desire.
The whole concept of striving to survive hinges on consequential activity. If we believed that survival were arbitrary, that our actions did nothing to lead to our survival, we’d just give up, wouldn’t we?
But we don’t believe this. We believe our actions have consequences, and thus when we hear or see or read a story, we pay close attention to see how character action has consequence for their survival.
And that’s why people are so bothered by deus ex machina. It flies in the face of survival and meaningful living, which are predicated on the idea that actions have consequences.
When I read manuscripts of short stories and novels, I make a lot of comments on whether the writer has “earned” the various developments within the story. Here, I’d like to point out the most common kinds of unearned writing I see.
1. Salvation Events
Deus ex machina falls under this larger umbrella of “salvation events,” but salvation extends beyond machines—T-Rexes killing velociraptors or R2-D2 waking up just in time to save the rebellion.
Salvation events also occur, for instance, when a character finds himself in a dilemma he’s conveniently perfectly suited for.
You mean we’ll all die unless I wrestle that alligator? Ha! My pappy taught me how to wrestle gators when I was 7. Been wrestling them my whole life.
Sure, a protagonist can be well-suited to challenges. I mean, presumably we’re telling the story precisely because this particular person met challenges others couldn’t (Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Jon Stark).
But you still want your protagonist’s successes to hinge upon choice rather than luck.
Stephan Vladimir Bugaj gives a good illustration of how even if you include a string of coincidences in your story, your reader might forgive you if character choice brings about the ultimate resolution.
For example, let’s say in a cop thriller you establish that there’s a beekeeping convention in the downtown convention center this coming weekend.
Later, coincidentally, the hero finds out that a villain is allergic to bees.
Later still, as the villain is closing in on the hero and seems about ready to win the hero remembers the convention, and in a last ditch effort to escape certain defeat she diverts the action into the convention center. She kicks over the bee boxes, and lets the bees do her work for her.
It’s coincidence that there were bees and a bee-allergic villain in the same cop story at the same time to begin with, never mind that the action happened to take place on bee convention weekend. But the audience will (if it’s done with enough finesse) potentially consider it clever rather than coincidental because a character choice closed the loop.
So therein lies your solution to any instance of coincidence getting characters out of trouble: make salvation from trouble stem from character choice in some way.
2. Character Realization
Do realizations exist in real life?
I’ve had some.
Once, when I was 14 years old, I spent a month abroad in Australia, living with a host family. At one point, near the end of my stay, I took a trip with a crotchety host grandmother and another foreign exchange student from Japan.
It was miserable.
Spend four hours in a car with a grumpy septuagenarian and a shy girl who speaks no English and tell me how much fun you have.
The woman drove us out to the countryside somewhere south of Sydney. I don’t even remember what our actual destination was. A farm, I think. Something pretty unremarkable for a boy from Wisconsin.
But I remember the woman stopping the car atop a hill that overlooked an enormous, open valley. In the distance, the hilly horizon dipped low enough to expose a sliver of blue ocean, which stood out against the uniform green of the trees and grass populating the valley.
The grandmother needlessly pointed out the ocean, and the Japanese girl and I nodded, already staring at it, mouths agape.
But then a thought occurred to me—a thought so foreign, it almost had the impression of being a voice outside of me. And this voice said, “Sure, the blue is beautiful, but look at the green!”
Just like that, the whole valley suddenly came alive with light, and I saw it all with a new appreciation.
So yeah, realizations exist in real life. But I have three observations about them:
1) They slowly accrue. 2) They have a larger context. And 3) they have an immediate trigger.
I see a lot of realizations in written work that are just too sudden, too apropos of nothing. So (Point 1 here): Realizations should have some buildup.
Prior to my “look at the green” experience, I had a series of experiences that followed the general pattern of this-is-going-to-suck-followed-by-that-wasn’t-so-bad. I didn’t have a realization following each of them. I just experienced each of them as better than I expected.
In fact, the sum total of my time in Australia could be summarized by that realization out in the hills. I was homesick (I was 14!), and my host family was very permissive and hands-off, so I got thrown into adventures I would not have willingly signed up for.
It was scary and often unpleasant, but (Point 2 coming) by the time I got to the hills with Grandma, my subconscious probably recognized that I had no damn right to be complaining about anything.
And then I saw that sliver of ocean and the green hills, and I had an external trigger (Point 3, there) for my realization. The subconscious mind likes metaphor. It often speaks to us in a sort of sideways way.
So here’s the thing: you need to build enough context so that a realization can realistically bubble up from a subconscious place within your character.
3. Plot Turns
Plots often turn on key events, key decisions, or key discoveries.
I think of events as being outside of POV characters. They are things that happen to characters, not things characters make happen.
I don’t see a lot of problems with a failure to earn events—other than what’s been discussed already with deus ex machina types of events. And of course, if you throw too many random chance problems into the story, you’ll have trouble creating a causal chain.
But mostly the challenges I see with plot turns have to do with decisions and discoveries.
Character decisions, like realizations, need to be earned via buildup and context. And character actions spring from decisions, so they go hand-in-hand with decisions. In fact, sometimes, we don’t see the character decision at all; we just see the resulting action. But they really come back to the question of why a character would decide to do that particular thing.
We do not need a logical/rational decision.
We do not need to hear the explanation.
We often times do not need to know exactly what the decision was or how it was reached.
In fact, decisions can remain a mystery to us.
It’s just that they can’t be entirely random and inconsistent with character.
In a nutshell: Decisions consistent with character can be unexplained and even mystifying; decisions inconsistent with character will draw attention to themselves. In other words, character decisions aren’t a problem until they’re a problem—until they draw attention to themselves.
At the very least, you need to prepare your readers to intuit the thought process behind a decision.
Take, for example, a short story about Tom and his son, Noah. Noah is 11, and when he turns 12, Tom is going to take him on a hunting and fishing trip. But then, on the eve of his son’s birthday, Tom decides not to take him. In the morning, Noah wakes up excited to go, but Tom tells him no. That’s the skeletal plot of this story.
Now, if we tell it from Tom’s POV, we need to know why he decided not to take Noah on the trip, right?
Seems obvious, but I see stories that fail to clue us in to important character decisions like this one, which, in the case of the Tom/Noah example is the story.
As for discoveries, what you have to watch out for are what I call convenient discoveries.
There’s a deus ex machina quality to discoveries that happen to come at just the right time.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance, there’s an otherwise great scene in which Max, who is chained to a car door and a guy he believes to be dead, comes upon a stranded rig carrying six women in the desert.
That much is earned. The car of the dead guy was among many cars chasing the rig through a stormy desert the night before, so it’s plausible it would break down. And in fact, the driver of the rig is pounding dust and sand out of the air intakes as Max rounds the corner of the truck.
But what he sees then is 5 half-naked female sex slaves using a bolt cutter to cut off their chastity belts.
Bolt cutters! Just what he needed!
That’s the convenient discovery.
4. Thematic Insertions
And lastly are what I call thematic intrusions. This is the name I give to any see-through digression that serves no other purpose than to convey theme.
I’m not disregarding theme in stories; every fiction conveys truth of some sort. But theme needs to arise from the story—from the characters’ preoccupations and transformations.
In stories I edit, I see the occasional ruminative digression that has nothing to do with anything in the scene-level desire or conflict.
Two characters are on their way to identify a dead body—the estranged mother of one of them—for instance, and they have a conversation about horses, and the POV character thinks long and hard about how horse societies are matriarchal and how mares are sometimes notoriously nasty and competitive. And then we arrive at the morgue or whatever and that’s that.
Now, it’s not that the matriarchal horse parallel is a bad one necessarily. It’s a question of how it is delivered. An unearned, obviously-symbolic pondering session is not the way to do it.
The way to do it is something that draws less attention to itself.
Make the POV character a horse trainer. Embed the observations about mares in a scene involving a mare who nearly tramples the POV character’s son.
Disguise thematic parallels and symbolism with story action.
You know the most egregious unearned thematic insertion (UTI’s we’ll call them)? Dreaming.
But there’s another UTI I see on occasion: the piece of artwork—a book, usually—which has uncanny parallels to the plot of the story we’re reading.
On the way into the morgue, our POV character watches a group of high schoolers walk by, and one of them drops a book. The POV character picks it up: it’s a copy of Hamlet or Oedipus Rex or As I Lay Dying or whatever book featuring a bad mother that is most clearly a parallel to the dead one in our current story.
Whoa! You made it to the end of this beast. You know what I’m leaving out? A lot, actually. You’ve got your unearned info dumps, your unearned flashbacks, your unearned emotional reactions. Recognizing problems in the causal web (it’s really more of a web than a chain) is one of the primary occupations of a good editor.
I’ve written some other articles you may want to check out.
- Balancing interiority with external action
- Information vs. Action
- Lessons from “Cat Person”
- Being an invisible author