Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Words! Anna 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 author 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.


Anna Buttimore said...

Well put, Jennie. I think books which stoop to miraculous endings show a lack of planning. Love the new look of the blog, by the way.

Gale Sears said...

I agree! The blog look is wonderful and your thoughts on plot resolution was spot on.

Gale Sears said...

OOps! Thoughts--were. LOL! Who said I was a writer?

Lynn Gardner said...

Love the new look, Jennie! And I agree with your blog. I love words. I'm devastated the world has taken some of my favorites and changed the meanings so I can no longer use them. I love the magic feel some words have as you twist your tongue around them. And some words sound like they mean! Short and sweet and sometimes impertinent.