Avoiding Deus ex Machina

Deus ex machina is a plot device where a person or thing is introduced unexpectedly and which provides a contrived solution to an apparently unsolvable difficulty.  I fear accidentally creating these.

In my current project, I have several situations that require setup ahead of time so that when the story arrives at one of those situations, the solution does not come across as contrived.  However, sometimes I haven’t fleshed out the events that would feel contrived if not properly setup ahead of time.

Tonight, I revisited earlier parts of the story to sow more seeds to cover the situations that are now beginning to take on their full form.  This weaving of story elements into a complex pattern is fun, but I will need beta readers to tell me if the setups work to prevent deus ex machina.

Symbols

A symbol is a method of attaching meaning to an action or item by associating it with something else thus giving the symbol a new, significant meaning in the story. Symbols are ways to inform the reader without using actual words to explicitly convey that information.

My current project is an origin story for a character used in a later story. When this character is introduced, I give her a locket I intend to use in the later story. However, this triggered the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle paraphrased as “If you introduce a narrative detail, that detail must be used later in the story.” I decided I’d deal with that later and moved on.

Then, I needed something to help express the character’s distress. The locket introduced at the beginning was the solution. It was related to a tragedy in her life, which was the cause of her distress, and it resolved the Chekhov’s Gun dilemma.

The magic of this revelation was how it affected the story’s ending. I knew what needed to happen at the end of the story, but I did not know how it would happen. In a rush of adrenaline induced euphoria, I saw how the locket defines the story and creates the ending. Moments like this make writing addictive.

Symbols are wonderful. I think I’ll keep them.

Locket on necklace chain.
Locket used as a Symbol

Motifs

A motif is a recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. An example I noticed in the movie Hidden Figures (2016) was when child Katherine G. Johnson’s teacher handed her the chalk, and then later her boss handed her the chalk. Both times Katherine proved herself by solving a math problem on the blackboard. These scenes also ended with Katherine adjusting her glasses. The movie had other motifs as well, such as Dorothy Vaughan saying “attagirl” when she got some device to work.

I tend to do a few motifs without thinking about them. My goal is to improve my motifs by actively giving them the thought and planning they deserve.

Two scenes from the movie Hidden Figures (2016) when Katherine G. Johnson was handed the chalk.
Handing the Chalk to Katherine

The More I Write, the More I Learn

As I practice writing, I learn about the writing craft, I build skills in the writing craft, but I also learn other things because I do research to support what I’m writing. For the story I’m currently writing, I researched childhood trauma.

The two main characters suffered childhood traumas. That trauma drives the attitude and behavior of the point-of-view character. She suffered her trauma years ago and is now an adult. The other character is a child who recently suffered her trauma. It is easier for me to write the adult than to write the child probably because I can relate to how an adult who suffered trauma as a child might deal with it as an adult. I can’t do that for the child. Thus, I researched childhood trauma to gain an understanding of how a child reacts to trauma.

I learned many things from my research and I now have a better idea of how to write the child, but I also learned about me. While I did not suffer childhood trauma as severe as what some people have, there were things that left their mark on me. I now understand myself better and I understand why I can write the adult. However, even with this new understanding, I still have my childhood trauma scars. In part, those scars make me who I am.

The more I write, the more I learn, and sometimes what I learn is about me.

My Favorite 2018 Reads

I read quite a few books this year. Science fiction, fantasy, science fact, memoirs, current affairs, history, skill building, and self help are a few of their categories. I learned many things and I was entertained. These six are among my favorite reads in 2018.

  • “The Lost Continent” by Tui T. Sutherland
  • “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire
  • “Tess of the Road” by Rachel Hartman
  • “My Lady Jane” by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows
  • “Space Opera” by Catherynne M. Valente
  • “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover
Book covers for my six favorite books I read in 2018.

Karma

Karma
by Lester D. Crawford

Santa said, “There are two kinds of people: those who are on the naughty list, and those who are not.” He handed me my gift and added, “Both receive the same gift. Karma sorts things out.”

I love my gift. She’s wonderful. And, karma taught me which list I’m on.

It had been a little sneeze, but now I sit in the yard, in the snow, the cute baby dragon curled up in my lap, asleep, innocent and sweet, smoke still rising from her nostrils as I watch my house burn, the flaming Christmas tree still framed in the window.

My 100-word Christmas story for 2018.

Keep Pushing, Keep Improving, and Keep Having Fun

For years, I’ve practiced the craft of writing fiction. The scale of the subject is sizeable. Every author has their own take on the topic and each has their own process for achieving success. By studying what these people teach, and by writing close to a million words, I’ve developed my process, a process that accommodates my personality and idiosyncrasies. I may never be a master, but I do constantly improve.

This year I’ve applied my process to short stories. The turnaround time for creating a short story as opposed to a long form novel has allowed me to rapidly practice story structure, character change arcs, and other details of story theory. Each story has strengthened my skill set. And, each story has been wonderful. I am proud of my accomplishments.

I’m going to keep pushing, keep improving, and keep having fun.

Character Change Arc as Story Driver

Normally, I know the plot of a story first. Then I lay over that plot the main character’s character change arc. These two steps happen so close together, there’s not really a delay between developing the plot and the character change arc. With my current project, however, I did not have the plot figured out. I only knew the essence of what needed to happen.

To solve my dilemma, I set the plot aside and concentrated on the main character’s character change arc. Once I knew how the character would change, I returned to built a plot to support that change.

Over the years, I’ve studied many resources about character change arcs and feel comfortable with them, but to help with my current effort, I decided to review and refresh my thinking. I reread K.M. Weiland’s article series How to Write Character Arcs.

I was amazed how that gave me insights and ideas about my characters and the story plot. More details are still to be developed as I outline, but I’m excited about where the story is going.

Fantastic Insights Occur

I’m a planner, which means I know my story before I begin writing. However, that does not mean I don’t discovery write. The plan provides the structure for the story, but the details that complete it I discovery write.

During the writing process, fantastic insights occur. For example, in my most recent short story, I discovered the dragon has a thing for rocks. When she finds a rock large enough to sit on, she jumps on it and says, “This rock is my rock.”

That affinity for rocks then grew into a backstory where the dragon collects smaller rocks, her hoard, which she enjoys sitting on. That detail is not revealed in the short story, so I feel compelled to write another story with this character so I can explore her rock fetish.

I’ll put that one on the to-do list because I another stories to write first.

The rush from having these fun insights and ideas is part of the reason why writing is addictive. I’m always looking for another flash of insight, another spark of an idea, another fix for that addiction.

Short Fiction Builds Skills

Recently, I’ve been writing short stories. With them I can practice my writing craft skills quickly because a short story doesn’t take as long to write as a long-form story. This quicker turnaround allows me to refine my writing process by repeatedly running through it over several months rather than years. For these stories, I aim for 6,000 words.

Micro fiction is another form I dabble with. Every year I write a 100-word Christmas story. I tend toward long stories, so the first time I wrote one of these I was surprised I could. (Apparently, a 100-word work of fiction is called a “drabble.” That means I dabble in drabble.)

I searched for information about micro fiction story structure and discovered a variety of opinions, all of which are probably valid. The story I wrote this year has a three part structure: 1) Setup, 2) Bridge, 3) Consequence. I like the way it turned out. Later I’ll experiment with some of the structures and methods other writers suggest.

In December, near Christmas, the story should be available for you to read. Stay tuned.