Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deus ex Machina, or the Stupid Solution

I just finished another Pride and Prejudice knock-off. After my last experience with Regina Jeffers' awful book (bashed in a previous blog entry), I was reluctant to try another one, but I checked out Mr. Darcy, Vampyre from the library anyway.

Let me say, first, that it was a FAR better book than Jeffers'. Her level of plagiarism and horrid grammar made me gag for two days straight. This book was far more original, and began with the wedding, leading through to Elizabeth's final discovery that her husband was a vampyre.

What I hated--and I mean hated--was the end. Instead of resolving the problems the book accumulated through some known means, Amanda Grange (the author) pulled a rabbit out of a hat, inventing in the last 20 pages a solution for all of it.

It isn't just this Deus ex Machina I hate. It's any solution slapped on the end of a plot line because the author(s) cannot think of a fix that is integral to the rest of the book. As I write, perhaps I am better at creating the problem and building the tension than I am at finding the solution. Perhaps the solution only comes as I write, and I don't plan for it. However, once the solution has been found, it is my job as a writer to REVISE with that solution in mind. Grange's book's ending tossed all of the suspense and conflict on its head, essentially wiping it out in simple ways with an invented wash cloth of sorts. It's as if she'd written her characters into such a hole that the only way out was some weird prophecy.

The Sherlock Holmes stories had this problem, offering "solutions" to the mysteries only through cryptic details at the last minute, details none of the readers would ever be able to pick up on, but at least some of the clues were there already. I like it best when a plot contains the solutions, yet I miss them, and the ending is a surprise. Then I can re-read and see all the clues I missed the second time around. That, to me, is satisfying.

Now, here is one place this worked for me, and I'll explain why: At the end of Disney's The Little Mermaid, when Triton sees that his daughter loves Prince Eric, he magically gives her the legs she wanted, and she gets to live happily ever after. One could certainly argue that this last-minute "fix" was a deus ex machina. However, Triton could have done the same magic earlier, except for his prejudice against humans and dry land. It takes his near loss of his daughter and personal witness of Prince Eric's bravery to change his mind. You see, the plot isn't really about Ariel's becoming human, but about her father's acceptance of her choice. And that makes his act all the more potent and meaningful, as well as something we could have seen coming (though I was surprised the first time around).

What about all of you? What endings have struck you wrong? When has an ending seemed forced? When has it fundamentally changed what you thought you were reading?


  1. Perhaps that's why I rarely read mystery. I know it's one reason why, though I'm a big fan of the original Star Trek, the Next Generation left me cold(particularly the first season). It seemed to depend on this type of resolution far too often. Deux ex Machina feels like cheating to me, the kind of thing you do when you just don't have a real ending.

    I think doing building your hints for a surprise ending right, however, can be amazingly powerful. I think The Sixth Sense is a wonderful example of how well it can be used. So is The Count of Monte Cristo.

    I don't think I use DeM (though I've often written in details as I've gone along for "no good reason" only to pull all those together to bring the plot into place at the end - I think, though, my subconscious has figured it out and just wanted to surprise me).

    I guess I don't remember books/movies that disappointed me nearly as well as those that wowed me.

  2. Thx for the heads up... I'll have to come back when I have more time to answer the questions more adequately.

  3. I commonly have problems like that with my poems. I'll be writing and hit a brick wall, so I just finish it as fast as I can. Not very good quality, but I think if you plan to revise it in the future, a quick fix is okay for a short time. Like say you wanted to perfect the plot before you finish the book around that plot but want it to have that "finished" feel if you show it to someone for advice.

    Just my opinion though, as I was better at humoring you with what I wrote than getting quality on paper. I doubt you remember them, but in my papers once I hit the "page requirement" I tried to tie all the knots as fast as I could.

  4. Hate deus ex machina endings. Books are no fun if you can't figure it out as you go along.

    On Pride and Prejudice sequels--have you read the terribly juicy "Mr Darcy Takes a Wife"? Not fabulous literature, but, oh, so fun.