Monday Motivation: Avoid the perils of the deus ex machina
With a colleague, I’ve been devising a fairly complex story, running over ten or so years, featuring the adventures of a young man as he transitions from childhood, through adolescence into young adulthood. We’re basing our story very closely on the experiences of a real person, although we’re taking great liberties with the truth in order to create as much drama as possible.
What has struck me about this intricate process – which is no more and no less than working out the arc of an entire novel – is the number of times that we’ve had to go back in our planning to tweak earlier episodes, insert new incidents, or, more simply, plant small clues, in order to make later scenes resonate more powerfully than they otherwise would.
Take for instance our decision to have our protagonist set fire to the belongings of a tramp. Firstly, of course, we had to be quite sure that this attempt (which fortunately fails) was fully motivated in the preceding scenes.
We had to show how the boy’s rage was ignited by some particularly cruel treatment meted out to him by a despotic father, and how, in the moment, he lashed out at the completely innocent vagrant. We had to make sure that readers would understand his emotional confusion in order to sympathise with him rather than condemn him.
But we also realized that it would serve our dramatic purpose very well if we could, early in the story, plant the lighter that he used to start the fire. We reasoned that if the reader realized that the lighter held particularly strong associations for our protagonist’s father, then, when our hero resorts to arson and uses the lighter to start the fire, this would be psychologically satisfying. It would be a way for our protagonist to strike back obliquely at his father.
Devising fiction requires many of these stratagems – and for the most part, they only occur to you fairly late in the day. First you lay out the design of the story, then you see the need to link Scene 13 with Scene 47. So you go back to Scene 13 and insert the reference that will incandesce in Scene 47.
Naturally, complex tales of crime and detection will require a great deal of this going back and altering history. But any story benefits from similar fiddling.
It’s called setting things up. You plant something – a lighter, a screwdriver, a bag of money – in an earlier scene, in order for it to later make its appearance. Because you’ve allowed the reader to catch a glimpse of it, its later appearance doesn’t seem to be arbitrary or coincidental – and you avoid deploying that most clunky of dramatic solutions, the deus ex machina.
Later in the story, our hero takes a severed human hand to school in a macabre attempt to win the attention of his previously dismissive classmates. That would have felt like a totally unbelievable plot device had we not earlier created a scene in which our hero is given a tour of the furnace room of a rural hospital in which amputated limbs are consigned to the fire.
Set things up properly, motivate characters’ actions in advance, foreshadow events (the shivers that herald an imminent earthquake; the air electric with static charge that signals an approaching storm) and you can persuade your reader to accept almost any, even outlandish, proposition.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: A lesson in using detail‘
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