Avoiding Deus et Machina Endings

If you regularly read ‘how to write’ books you may have read warnings against having a Deus et machina ending. What is that? It is usually explained as a tradition in ancient Greek theater where the playwright could land the character in a load of trouble the playwright couldn’t fix, and then just use the ‘God from the machine,’ a stage device that made it look like a god-character had taken the troubled character up to heaven and solved all his problems.

Well. I’m skeptical. The little ancient Greek drama I have read is on mythological and legendary stories— stories the audience knew. They would not welcome a divine intervention that wasn’t part of the traditional story! The divine interventions in the stories was expected by the audience, in the same way modern Christian readers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels were not surprised by the Second Coming of Christ at the end which did solve the Antichrist problem. (I was not a Christian when I started reading them, but even I expected that ‘Second Coming’ event since book one.)

In your real-world writing life, Deus ex machina as a failed story ending is different from what we might imagine. It does not need to involve God or ‘the gods.’ It usually involves unexpected, surprise help from a powerful source— a king or president, a scientific discovery or a space-alien intervention, whatever.

The problem is not the powerful helper, but in the fact that it is unexpected and a surprise, and that also the main character did nothing to earn it. In our own real lives, we don’t have all our problems solved by a divine miracle or by a president making a visit to our town on our behalf. We usually have to work and suffer to try to fix our problems, and it may not work even then.

Also, real world instances that seem to be possible divine intervention— such as when God allowed the Blessed Mother to appear to Bernadette in Lourdes and the three shepherd children in Fatima— the divine intervention didn’t solve problems but caused them. The Fatima children were even taken to jail and threatened with being boiled alive!

The reason the true Deus ex machina is a bad story ending is that it makes things too easy for our lead character. We don’t enjoy following the adventures of characters that have it all so easy. We like the Harry Potters who are little babies when a major evil wizard tries to kill them, or the Katniss Everdeens who have to volunteer for what seems like certain death in the Hunger Games to save a vulnerable younger sister.

In Mercedes Lackey’s book, Aerie, there is what a cynic might describe as a literal Deus ex machina towards the end. Several Egyptian gods intervene so the main characters won’t be destroyed by an enemy army lead by a monster who was becoming a goddess. But that’s just at the end of the book. The main characters have to go through a lot of struggles and hard work to get to the point where the gods intervene. Mercedes Lackey, having published probably as many as 50 books by the time she wrote Aerie (part of The Dragon Jousters series which I highly recommend, at least to mature readers.) She is too good a writer to put in an actual Deus ex machina ending.

I once read a critique of ‘Christian fiction’ by someone who didn’t seem to have actually read any. He claimed that all Christian fiction has an ending in which a miracle from God solves everything. I have read quite a bit of Christian fiction, both evangelical and Catholic, and I’ve never read a book where a miracle solves anything. To see an example, read the ’Saint Tommy’ series by Catholic author Declan Finn. His character Tommy Nolan is a NYC cop who has been given by God some ‘wonder-working’ abilities like the ability to bilocate and to smell demonic evil. But that doesn’t fix his problems, but makes him a major target of both demon-possessed criminals and of progressive politicians.

In your own writing, you can keep from unintentionally writing a Deus ex machina by richly providing your Lead character with problems. Let him work on the problems with his own efforts. Let him suffer! If he does receive special help, whether divine or otherwise, don’t let that solve the problems for him. Yes, sometimes especially in Christian fiction a character may have to trust in the Lord for something instead of trying to fix it himself, but deciding to trust the Lord is also an action. And your character must act, not just be buffeted between helpful and oppositional forces.

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What Writers Know that Isn’t So

Writers face a problem that, now in the Internet age, is worse than ever— what we know about writing that just isn’t so. Rumors run through the would-be writer community. The Internet makes them spread faster, and self-publishing makes it possible for even the horribly ignorant to write how-to-write books that contain this misinformation.

These false ideas cover many things. ‘Writing rules’ that just make you more inhibited about writing, since you can’t possibly remember all these arbitrary rules. Bad ideas on how to approach a potential agent, or how to promote your self-published book. Even the idea that you can use a pen name that makes you seem to be another, famous writer.

Where do you go to get more accurate ideas? How-to-write books are not all helpful, especially now that anyone can self-publish one. I find that Writer’s Digest Books publishes how-to-write books that are at least free from the worst howlers. The authors they publish are not all at the same level, however. They may throw out ideas at random that will lead you astray, even if the core message of their books is sound.

Lawrence Block, a mystery writer who also wrote articles on fiction writing for Writer’s Digest magazine and who also wrote how-to-write books, is a sound source on writing information, though dated. He got his start writing short stories for the ‘pulps,’ which no longer exist. But he was for many years a nationally known mystery author and some of his books have been made into movies. Any of his books is a good place to start your quest for writing knowledge.

James Scott Bell is an Evangelical Christian writer, also in the mystery genre, who took Lawrence Block’s place at Writer’s Digest magazine in the fiction writing area. He has written many how-to-write books as well, both from Writer’s Digest Books, and self-published. He gives out a lot of useful information to writers, and is, obviously, not biased against Christians like so many people are today.

Stephen King is a popular Left-Wing horror writer who wrote a book, On Writing. I was at one time a massive Stephen King fan, but I found the book a disappointment. I learned a lot about King’s life, but little about writing lore I didn’t already know. I do know of people who found his book helpful, and I’d imagine you might find a second-hand copy if you look for one.

Jerry B. Jenkins is famous as the author of the Left Behind series (LaHaye was just the theology consultant) and he wrote a book ‘Writing for the Soul’ which is helpful, and not only for writers who, like Jenkins, are Evangelical Christians. Even the most secular of secular writers can find something useful in this book, the same way I, as a Catholic writer, might consult books by secular writers like Lawrence Block.

To evaluate writing books in general, look at the author’s name. Have you ever heard of that author as a fiction writer? If you have, the book is probably worth reading at least once. Famous writing agents and writing teachers who are respected by ‘real’ writers can also contribute to your fund of knowledge.

After you have a fund of writing knowledge from good sources, you can expand your hunt. Even self-published how-to-write authors are not off limits then, because you will be able to discern which advice is good and which is likely to be bunk, or self-serving.

One reason that it’s important to get more writing knowledge is that there are plenty of con artist out there who prey on struggling writers. Google the term ‘vanity press’ to learn more about one of the schemes to make money off of writing ignorance.

Yesterday I discovered that the left-wing social medium Pinterest has chosen to classify prolife material as ‘nudity’ or porn. I have a Pinterest account which I haven’t used in years. I now use it exclusively to post prolife graphics. Find me at: https://www.pinterest.com/nissalovescats/ on Pinterest until they ban me!

 

Antagonists and Villains

Most stories have not only a protagonist or hero, but an antagonist or villain as well. These characters function as the opposition. Whatever the protagonist wants or needs to fulfill his story goal, an antagonist will stand against it. The antagonist is the human face of the opposition. Or the space-alien face, in some fiction. In any case, the antagonist personalizes the conflict.

A villain is an antagonist with the addition of the element of moral evil. A villain does not have to be a total Lord Voldemort or a Hitler. He just needs to have that element of wrongness that makes it that much harder for the protagonist to give in.

A lot of people today say they don’t believe in right and wrong, that there is no difference. There is an easy way to show such a person doesn’t really think that way: just steal his car. He will at that point have a lot to say about the evils of people who steal cars.

Readers like stories with heroes and villains even if they swear up and down that there is no such thing as good or evil. They like feeling that they are taking the right side in a struggle. They wouldn’t appreciate it if the young struggling hero they have loved throughout the story turns out to be Adolf Hitler and the wicked antagonist a Holocaust victim. A story like that, illustrating the point that there is no good or evil, ‘punishes’ the reader by making him side with evil by mistake.

Some stories can’t bear the weight of a true villain. This is especially true of Amish romances or children’s fiction. The antagonists of such stories can be cold or uncaring or unsympathetic to the protagonist, but in the rest of their lives they can be morally upright people. They are just wrong in this one instance.

In other stories, a Lord Voldemort type villain would be too much, but a more realistic villain— a criminal, a selfish person, and, if you are a socialist, an ‘evil’ businessman who wants profit— would fit the bill. The villain need not be evil in every aspect of his life. He may be kind to his cat (or his pet snake,) he may routinely give money to the local charities, and handouts to beggars. He’s just a villain in relation to the protagonist and his goals, and perhaps in other areas that trouble the protagonist.

You can write a story without any human or animate antagonist or villain. It’s common in man-against-nature stories, though in those cases there might be an animal antagonist in the form of a bear or a wolf pack. But most readers are more satisfied with a story with some personified opposition. Such stories are often easier to write. Because isn’t that how we experience opposition in the real world? Mostly, there is some human agency which makes the situation worse— and more memorable.

Read Declan Finn’s blog post ‘Making a Villain’ at A Pius Geek.

Novel Openings: Don’t Start with a Dream

There is a rule for fiction writers which I have read many times in different sources: never start a novel (or shorter fiction) with a character having a dream.

The reason is that dreaming story-openings are a mark of the amateur writer. New writers don’t understand that a reader starting a new story is eager to meet the characters in the normal world of the story. Show that character dreaming, and there is confusion. Who is this dreaming person? Who is he when he is awake? And why should I care about him?

Dreams— and visions, hallucinations and virtual realities— are a problem in fiction. Writers may think including such things are nifty. Or symbolic. But they are not part of the REAL story. And readers know it. These non-real events must be used very sparingly in any point in a work of fiction. But as an opener, dreaming is a story-killer.

Dreaming in the story opening delays the real beginning of the story, where you get to know the main character and his story-worthy problem and the other key characters that play a role. You may think ‘but the dream foreshadows the events in chapter three!’ But the story opener is too important to be wasted on a foreshadowing dream. Let’s get to the action!

A better way to start a story is to identify the first important action of your planned story and write that. Many new writers throw in a lot of stuff at the beginning that isn’t story. Dreams, getting up and having breakfast, pointless converation with wives or mothers….

Many new writers find their story beginnings are so clogged with unneeded stuff that they can throw out the first few chapters and have a stronger story. And that’s fine, if you are willing to throw out the unneeded scenes even though they add to the word count.

To know what is important enough to put in your first chapter, you have to know what the story is about. Look at a few examples of novels published by traditional, commercial publishers. How do the professional authors show you what the story is about starting from the first paragraph?

If you are still tempted to start with a character dreaming, know this. People that are judging your work in a professional way— agents and editors at a publishing house, for example— know that an opening scene dream is usually the mark of a not-there-yet beginnning writer. People in this position often have hundreds of manuscripts that they have to read (a little) and judge. Many unsolicited manuscripts are dreadful. No one is going to read the full first chapter, or even the full first page, to be ‘fair’ to the writer who clearly can’t write well enough yet. So if the story starts with a dream, even if it picks up right after the dream and is great fiction thereafter, it won’t matter. The reader has already put your manuscript down when the dream started.

The key to a good and compelling story beginning is to know what your story is about. Who is your main character? What is his story-worthy problem? Everything that is not part of that story— like dreams, breakfasts and subway trips— is just fluff and padding in your story. It will need to be cut.

Never write nice characters

Some writers, especially Christian ones, sit down to write and think it is their duty to create ‘nice’ characters for us. Because it’s nice to be nice and if you are nice, people will like you, right? But ‘nice’ isn’t good enough, in fiction or in real life.

In the real world, think of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Catholic priest who had offended the Nazis somehow and was sent to Auschwitz. One day some of the other prisoners had escaped. The Nazis decided to pick out some men to kill as a punishment to the group. One of the men picked was a family man who cried out he would be leaving his family behind. So Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to be killed in that man’s place. What would you say, if YOU were the man whose life was saved by Maximilian Kolbe? “How nice of you to die for me?” It was a lot more than just ‘nice.’

People go to fiction for stories that are more intense than our everyday lives. In our life we can divide the people we know into ‘nice’ and ‘not-so-nice’ categories, because we usually don’t know people who literally volunteer to die for someone. Or, at the other extreme, we don’t usually know serial killers or Hitlers.

In life, ‘nice’ and ‘not-so-nice’ people are okay. But in fiction, they are bland. That’s why we don’t just plunk down real people into novels. They have to be better or worse than everyday real people. Katness Everdeen (Hunger Games) didn’t just help her little sister with homework, she volunteered to take her sister’s place in a fight to the death. Lord Voldemort didn’t just leave his waitress a 5 cent tip, he went around KILLING people.

What can you do to make your fictional hero better than ‘nice,’ or your villain worse than ‘not-so-nice?’


Am currently reading:

Closer to the Heart – Mercedes Lackey (Fantasy, magic horses, spies)
MAGA 2020 & Beyond (Short story anthology) – edited by Jason Rennie, Dawn Witzke & Marina Fontaine
Heidi – Johanna Spyri (in German)
Mornings like This – Annie Dillard (found poetry)
Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik (about dragons in Napoleonic Wars)

Gave up on as Just Too Dull and SJWish and compared Pres Trump to a cannibal when he doesn’t even eat dog meat like fmr Pres Obama:

Sleeping Beauties – Stephen King & Owen King

Creating your own writing ritual

A daily writing practice is essential to becoming any kind of successful or productive writer. And part of that can be finding a writing ritual that makes you ready to start your writing work. Some people who don’t much know about the writing life seem to think you can just wait around for inspiration. But you have to have ways to seek inspiration out and drag it home by the hair if you want a daily writing practice, not just a once-in-a-great-while habit.

Clearing the area is a part of my writing ritual. I don’t have children or other family members to worry about, but I do have a lot of cats. Some of whom are willing to jump in my lap or on the keyboard just when I really get going. So, I start the writing day by catching the in-the-house cats and putting them on the back porch. I recently streamlined this ritual by serving up some canned cat food on the porch, which made most of the cats who need to be removed from the writing area remove themselves.
Some writers, I understand, don’t need a distraction-free environment to write. In fact, some need the distractions. Which is why some people write in a coffee shop or a public library. If that is you and you have such a place handy, make plans to write there at least some of the time.

Music is essential to some writers, whether from a CD or radio station. I’ve heard that author Stephen King actually bought a local radio station to keep it playing his writing music. Music helps if it is functioning as a kind of white noise cancelling out the distractions. If the music itself is a distraction, best not to make music a part of the ritual.

Models. When I write my poetry I use models. If I am writing a sijo poem, I first copy out a sijo from one of my poetry books. I then use it as an inspiration when I write one of my own. Or else I ignore the model entirely. When prose writing, writing out a whole novel would be a bit intimidating. But I have once copied out bits of a novel I liked before beginning with my own work.

Keywords. I have been writing poetry using keywords since long before I ever knew that some poetry writing teachers recommended it. I glean keywords from a variety of sources, books, encyclopedia articles, prayerbooks, television commercials…. Or dull political speeches.

The important thing about your writing ritual is that it has to be a ritual that works for YOU, not some imaginary ideal writer that is NOT-YOU.
The other thing is to stick with a possible ritual for a while. Doing certain things every time you sit down to write is a way to train your brain to be ready for writing when you do these things. That makes writing a repeatable action you can do every day until your writing is finished.

Committing to a #Writing Project #indecision

Random Kitten

The secret of writing is to keep working on one writing project until you get done, and then start another. If only my writing life worked that way. It’s really hard to stick with one writing idea. And it seems like I get more indecisive as time goes on. When I was younger I could stick with a project for weeks. Lately I’ve been able to start new writing projects every day, abandoning the old ones as hopeless.

I probably have got to stop doing that. I think my indecision is based on three things: first, my brain keeps coming up with shiny new ideas which of course are more attractive than the older ones.

Second, the older and, possibly, more mature I get, the more possibilities I see. When I was younger I could see only one way a story could go. Now, each story-beginning could lead in infinite directions. I hate that.

Third, the longer I go without finishing a novel, the more of a failure I am. Ever project I failed to finish— failure. And after some years of failure I feel it’s hopeless. Which makes any project I’m working on a doomed-to-failure project.

I don’t really know how to fix this. I can visualize a blue decisiveness pill that would fix all my problems if I took it, but I won’t take it because it’s probably really just a blue button that my kitten War has been playing with.

I feel like an utter failure today. But— there’s a good reason I won’t stop writing. Because my brain will keep providing me with story ideas and I will keep making up stories in my head because I’ve been doing it all my life. Without calling myself a writer I’d be just a weird crazy person living in a fantasy world. And I don’t want to be a weird crazy person. I want to be a NORMAL crazy person.


The kitten in the picture is named Umberto. She’s a girl, and all grown up now. She’s had kittens— usually litters of 1 kitten, as she was. She has a daughter named Norbert who’s probably 2-3 years old. I don’t know how old Umberto is.