2.11.2016

Blessed from Above

As a college student studying theatrical stage design, I became fascinated by a piece of stage machinery with an arresting name: deus ex machina. This device for lowering actors to the stage had its origins in ancient Greek drama, and by the time of Inigo Jones, a flamboyant Elizabethan stage designer, it had evolved into such sumptuous displays as Juno descending in her chariot to pronounce judgment on the lowly humans entangled in yet another sordid mess.

In that era the device opened the way for a playwright’s editorializing, but these days I see the device (literally translated, “god from the machine”) used as a device to resolve plots that have sprawled beyond the author’s grasp. In more fantastic tales the device is a modern variant of Arthur’s sword Excalibur, such as a new chemical antidote to the Ebola-like scourge that has wreaked havoc in the book. Yet even in more literary novels a plot may be “saved” in a manner that does not spring from the forces driving the plot forward up until that point.

Let’s take a long-divorced couple that has found reasons to come back together. The back-and-forth progress might founder two-thirds of the way through on a revelation, say, that the husband was cheating even in the early years of their marriage. Then suddenly the wife’s mother gets in an accident. The entire plot, focused on the couple’s issues, detours into the common comfort they find in a hospital waiting room. Sure, stuff like that happens, but they weren’t even thinking about her mother during the rest of the book. Maybe she’s not Juno, and a hospital bed doesn’t resemble a chariot, but she has “saved” their marriage.

I hold to Mark Twain’s dictum, that the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You choose the characters and causes you will braid throughout the book. The stronger they become, through repeated use, the more the friction they produce impacts the reader. If you introduce a device at the end to tie up the proceedings, guess what? The reader comes away disgruntled by the puppeteer wielding the strings.

Exercise: A useful word in this regard is intrinsic. In the example above, if you set up the mother’s parameters in a certain way, her illness may bring out natural qualities in the husband that the wife has admired all along. If the can-do bustle he adopted to finance his family’s progress through house and college educations is replaced by the Buddhist calm the wife loved when they first met, his sitting long hours by the hospital bed may nicely fit the book’s resolution.

“My parents believe in the happy endings to the stories of their children.”
—Glen Duncan

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine







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