Posted by: Jodi | July 30, 2014

Odd Writer Terminology: Deus ex Machina

This installment of Odd Writer Terminology comes from a literary device that’s as old as the ancient Greek tragedies, deus ex machina.  This is when a problem in a story is solved by improbable means.  In modern writing it is viewed as a huge don’t and something to be avoided.

Peleus+ThetisThe Latin phrase deus ex machina is defined as “a device, a scaffolding, an artifice” and is borrowed from a Greek expression meaning “god from the machine”. It originated with Greek theater when an actor would be lowered into the scene via a crane (the machine) or raised through a trapdoor.  These characters would have the power to solve whatever problem the characters on stage were experiencing.  Even in ancient times many were critical of the practice saying that the solutions to the plot should come as a result of the plot itself and not from an improbable surprise.

Here are a few made up examples:

Jake and Mindy have been trapped in a pit by the evil overlord Vance. Suddenly, Jake discovers that he has magic powers that will transport them out of the pit and to safety.

Because we hadn’t seen Jake having magic before it makes this solution a deus ex machina.  Had Jake shown that he had these powers earlier then the solution would have been probable.

Alexander’s army is thirsty for the blood of the Prussian army.  As they face each other on the battlefield the goddess of peace appears and pleads with them to lay down their weapons and return to their homes.  They agree and peace is restored.

Anytime a deity shows up to solve a problem it will be considered deus ex machina.  The only way it wouldn’t be is if that deity had been a solid presence throughout the story and her coming was a possibility before hand.

Sir Issac has been sentenced to death for his crimes. As he is walked to the gallows a messenger arrives.  The kind and benevolent king has decided to grant Sir Issac a pardon.

Again we see a higher power intervene and save the character from a dark fate. Had a large part of the story been about Sir Issac seeking pardon for a false conviction then it wouldn’t be deus ex machina.

In these examples each problem was solved by a power greater than the characters possessed entering the scene.  Usually these greater powers come in the form of magic, gods, or kings, but they can be anything that is beyond what the character can do.

To avoid deus ex machina it is important to introduce all the needed elements to solve the plot problems earlier in the story.  This way, when it comes time to save the day nothing will come as an unexpected or improbable surprise.

Happy writing!

 

Resources:

http://literary-devices.com/content/deus-ex-machina

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

 

Other installments in the Odd Writer Terminology series:

Character Foils

Posted by: Jodi | July 23, 2014

Leave the 180s For Thrill Seekers

PRO180_0In skateboarding and other sports when someone jumps and turns in the air so that the opposite foot is forward, it is called a 180.  It’s a fun stunt and looks cool.  A 180, meaning 180 degrees, comes from the degrees of a compass.  A full circle is 360 degrees.  The term 180 is also used for when someone changes their mind to the complete opposite of what they had believed or thought before.

In books and movies when a character does a complete change, generally from good to bad, this is called a 180 or a heel turn.  When done right it comes as an exciting development in the story, which is always a good thing. When done wrong it blindsides the audience leaving them confused and betrayed.

By now everyone is more than familiar with the movie Frozen. If you aren’t what rock have you been hiding under?  [Warning, spoilers ahead!]  This movie has been a smash hit ever since it was released and is the 6th highest grossing movie of all time. Even as a runaway success it’s not without problems, namely – the complete heel turn of Hans.

Hans spends most of the movie infatuated with Anna and does everything in his power to help her as her older sister Elsa freezes the world with her magic powers.  He’s adorable, brave, and proves that he can take care of the kingdom while Anna sorts out Elsa.  He shocks the audience when Anna returns from the mountain needing an act of true love to save her life and instead of giving her true love’s first kiss, he leaves her to die.

 

Good Hans

Good Hans

Bad Hans

Bad Hans

This is a great example of a 180 gone wrong.  We had no clue of his dark intentions up until this moment and it doesn’t  fit with his character. There were no hints along the way, no foreshadowing, nothing. It made the story feel disjointed and made everyone hate Hans, and not in a good way. Those who like dissecting Disney films will tell you it’s because there was a last-minute story change during production.

In the original story Hans is truly in love with Anna and there is even a wedding with a whole song and dance number.  In the end he is forced to kill Elsa to save the realm, as a mercy.  This turned Elsa into the enemy and didn’t resonate well with test audiences. The story of the two sisters relationship worked better if Elsa wasn’t the villain, which meant that they needed someone new to play the part.  Poor Hans’ character had to be sacrificed to make this new story line work.

the freemason

Last night I watched The Freemason, an Indie murder mystery film starring Sean Astin.  It had the same problem.  The good guy plays the good guy all through the movie and then minutes before the end we see that he is in fact a homicidal maniac bent on becoming rich and powerful.  As a murder mystery there needs to be suspicion cast over several characters to keep the audience guessing.  We spent the movie trying to put together the clues, which were sparse, only to be blindsided by someone who had no apparent motive.

Had there been a few clues along the way, talk of him being unsatisfied with his financial situation, scenes of him struggling to make ends meet, a marked distaste for those who had power and wealth, a hint that perhaps he knows more than he should, anything, then I might have bought it.  Because it didn’t, I finished the movie feeling a bit cheated.

Should you choose to include a 180 with one of your characters it needs to follow a few rules.

  1. The character should show that he is capable of  being the other character.
  2. The 180 should make sense within the structure of the story.
  3. If the 180 is caused because the story had a problem that needed to be fixed, during editing new elements must be added into earlier scenes that give clues that this character isn’t what they seem.

If you choose to use a 180 with your characters, be sure to do it right.  Surprising your readers with complete character changes is never a good idea, unless you’ve set them up first.  Then they are great.

Happy Writing!

***

Starting with this post I’m offering something new! Once a month I will give away a free critique of the first 20 pages of a novel in progress or a query letter.  All you have to do is “like” this post for one entry into the raffle.  For a second entry, leave a comment.  It’s that easy. Comments and likes from this post will count toward the raffle to be held the end of August.

 

Posted by: Jodi | July 16, 2014

Editing is like dentistry

happy tooth

 

I had my regular dental check-up last week and with it the dreaded cleaning.  Even though I take good care of my smile, the hygenist always finds something to scrape and poke.  It hurts and I hate it.  Every time I go I’m told that had I flossed more regularly it wouldn’t be as bad. I hate flossing only slightly less than having my teeth scraped.  I’ve tried using a water-pik but frankly that’s worse.  It sounds like a mini jack hammer and I end up spraying half the bathroom in the process.

All those years of my reluctance to floss are beginning to catch up and I know that if I don’t change my rebellious ways then the real trouble will start, meaning more pain while in the chair.  Had I been a good flosser from the beginning then cleanings would be easier and I could spare myself yet another lecture.

Suppose I hadn’t been brushing at all and it had been several years since my last visit.  Chances are there would have been cavities and possibly the need for a root canal or two.  Some of the teeth might have been so damaged that they needed to be removed entirely.  Not only would this process have been painful, it would have been very costly as well.

In drafting a novel, just like in caring for teeth, it is essential to clean things up.  Each chapter is like a tooth which needs both brushing and flossing. Brushing is like rough edits where we make sure that all the thoughts on the page are in the right order, are necessary, and are clear to understand.  Flossing is the polishing edits where the language is refined and all the nitty-gritty grammar is fixed.

Sending a first draft to an editor is the equivalent of visiting the dentist after never brushing or flossing for a lifetime.  You can expect to have lots of pain as chapters are ripped into and all the issues are brought out into the open. You might even lose a chapter or two to the process. However, if both brushing and flossing have been done and the draft is squeaky clean then it’s more likely that the editor won’t find any major issues that need to be addressed.

Just as a cleaning is harder if it has been a while since it has been done; editing can be more difficult if all the work is left to the end.  I know many writers who spend the first part of their writing sessions combing through what they’ve written the day before.  After they’ve cleaned up the previous day’s work and brushed away the rough edges they then can continue to writing the next scene. Not only does this make for a better draft it also helps ground the writer into the story so they can continue writing.

When the whole novel has been “pre-cleaned” in this way it leaves less work at the end when it comes time to do polish editing. Don’t get me wrong, there will still be plenty to refine and correct, but it will be far less daunting.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect analogy, a chapter won’t build up problems over time by itself the same way a tooth will.  A dentist will fix a problem mouth at a great charge, an editor will make copious notes marking out the problems that the writer must correct before the story can go to market.  The more a writer can do to perfect his story before sending it in, the less painful the process will be.

Happy writing and don’t forget to floss!

Posted by: Jodi | July 9, 2014

Fearing the Blank Page

dangerous-rope-bridge-1

 

Starting something new is hard.  It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be trying painting with water colors, snorkeling, or crossing a rope bridge.  There always has to be that first stroke, that first plunge, that first step. Once that first action is conquered the initial fear wears off and is replaced with a series of new fears.  The willingness to tackle each of these challenges is necessary to be able to complete any endeavor.

Writing is no different.

It starts with the blank page and a head full of ideas and no clue how to transfer the brilliance of those ideas into words.  The process of putting those billowy perfect ideas and concepts into concrete thoughts that actual people might read is intimidating and even terrifying. It’s as if there’s no turning back once the first letter is struck to the page.

I can attest to the phenomenon of whole colonies of ideas that had camped out in my brain for weeks simply vanishing as I begin to lay down the first words on the blank page.  The pressure to perform forces ideas into hiding and then I either have to leave the computer for a while and allow them to creep back, or continue writing until they are forced out into the open.  Once these ideas are splattered onto the page then I can begin to organize them and see if they are strong enough to hold up a story or if they need extra work.

Often ideas are quite dreamlike in their absurdity.  They make perfect sense while they are floating around in my head and often have powerful emotions associated with them.  They feel like they have true narrative power and potential.  It is only when I attempt to transfer these thoughts to the page that the ugly truth becomes clear, the ideas make less and less sense as they are brought into the light.

The origami town that folds in on itself to open secret passages for the blessed paper people who have access to the edges and the seams, must always be wary of the giant shoes that threaten to crush them.   At first this has the feel of a truly original idea and perhaps a brilliant one at that.  The idea of writing it into a fully fleshed out story, however, would require many more elements before it could be made to work, and even then, giant shoes?

Eventually all ideas, whether they need work or not, will need to reach the blank page. Here are a handful of ways to overcome the fear that comes with it.

  • Allow time to free write. This is when all reason is thrown out the window and the goal is to write down everything about an idea regardless of if it makes sense or not.  Free writes are supposed to be terrible blobs of thought so the fear that what is being written is utter drivel is gone.  The point is to capture the ideas and allow the subconscious to fill in all the little details that hadn’t been considered yet.
  • Pretend that there is no intention of sharing the story with anyone.  While it sounds really selfish, not having the pressure of thinking that other people will be immediately reading what is being written makes the process more personal.  In essence, what is being written is for the sole enjoyment of the writer.
  • Just do it. It all comes down to facing the fear of possible failure and deciding to try anyway.  The practice of regularly writing new scenes, new chapters, and new stories will make facing the blank page a matter of routine.  There will always be that twinge of apprehension and for me at least, a series of two or three false starts before things get rolling, it’s normal.

Hopefully the next time that nasty blank page comes around it won’t be a big deal.

Happy Writing!

 

Posted by: Jodi | July 2, 2014

You Call That a Sequel?

As a family we recently bagged our cable and are now at the mercy at what Netflix and Amazon prime has to offer.  This isn’t a bad thing. All the screaming that came with my kiddos seeing commercials for things that I will never get them is a thing of the past.  My only complaint is that it’s way too easy to turn on a show and end up in front of the TV all day watching all the episodes.

My youngest two children love the movie Mulan.  I can’t complain, it’s one of my favorites as well.  It has a great story and a great message, especially for girls.  When I found Mulan II on Netflix, I figured that I would let the kids try it out.

Let’s just say it can’t hold a candle to the original.

Caution – spoilers ahead!

11148476_detThe original Mulan is about a girl who disguises herself as a soldier to save her father and in the process ends up saving China against the Hun invasion.  It is her brains and courage that pull her through trial after trial, even when she has everything to lose.  She also has a tiny dragon sidekick, Mushu, who gives advice, but is ultimately only there for comic relief.  She starts the story failing her attempts to impress the matchmaker and ends up as the hero of China and capturing the interest of China’s most eligible bachelor, Li Shang.

It’s a great film with great writing and music.

220px-Mulan2DVDMulan II shares nothing from the original Mulan that made it great.  In this story, China is trying to make an alliance with Mongolia by wedding the Chinese emperor’s daughters to Mongolian princes. Mulan, now a hero of China, has been assigned to be part of the royal guard to escort them there safely. Mulan and Shang, her captain from Mulan I, are engaged to be married and Mushu learns that their union will threaten his newly acquired place of honor among the guardians.  He does everything in his power to push the two apart, resulting in a disaster that appears to kill Shang.  In the meantime the Chinese princesses decide that they would rather marry the guards instead of doing their duty to protect China.  Mulan, in an effort to save China, agrees to marry the oldest prince.  Shang turns up and Mushu impersonates the Golden Dragon of  Unity to force the ruler of Mongolia to stop the wedding and then marries Sheng to Mulan.

Confused? Yeah, it’s complicated and it didn’t have to be.

One of the main reasons that Mulan II did not succeed is that it didn’t have a single thing in common with Mulan I.  The characters are in very different roles, their motivations are different,and the tone is different.  On its own the movie might have been considered average but not great.  As a sequel we had certain expectations that weren’t fulfilled, and that was the nail in the coffin.  We expected Mulan to be the main character and for her to steer the events in the movie, instead it was Mushu.  We expected there to be a  bad guy worth calling a bad guy, someone who clearly has bad intentions and who must be stopped.  Instead we have political issues and again, Mushu who screws things up for his own gain.  In Mulan I there were the ceremonial preparations for Mulan to be made up into a bride which gave viewers a fascinating view of Chinese culture and two of the many memorable songs from the movie.  This didn’t happen in Mulan II.

I could go on.

Mulan II was written by a completely different  group of screenwriters than Mulan I.  In fact, the two movies don’t share a single director, producer, editor, production company or distributor. The only thing that the two have in common are some of the voice talent.  It’s no surprise that the two movies ended up being so different from each other.

When creating a sequel, it is important to stay true to the characters and the feeling of original story, at least in the beginning so that there is a connection between the two.  After that, it’s alright to throw in conflicts that will force the characters to grow and change. These conflicts, while not the same,  should be able to be compared and contrasted against the problems that the character has had before to show how they have grown.  These conflicts should be harder to overcome either emotionally, logistically, or physically.  Also, elements that were successful in the original story should find parallels in the second.

Writer beware – sequels are tough.  Get feedback, do your homework, and make sure you can live up to the promise left by the original story.

 

Happy Writing!

Posted by: Jodi | June 25, 2014

Writing Update

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted an update and lots of work has been done since then.  In the last update I had been struggling with making ends meet when I removed a redundant character and replaced him with someone more significant.   Not only did this require the addition of several scenes and the refocusing of many others, it also gave me a new lead character who I ended up liking so much that he has now become a major player in the story.

I’m now working through what I have heard described as the “murky middle.” One of the biggest problems with first books is that there is a great and ending but the middle tends to fall short.  Mine was no different and I’ve had to prune off several scenes that didn’t further the plot and add in those that did.  Hopefully my efforts don’t fall short here as there is nothing more frustrating than a book that you fall in love with at the beginning and then get bored with halfway through.

These last few weeks I’ve been working through a series of extremely emotionally charged scenes.  Tensions are high for everyone in the cast and the price of failure is catastrophic loss.  Nothing wrings me out more than working on these scenes.  I have to put myself in the character’s emotional state in order to capture those moments in writing.  At times it’s just too much to take and I have to stop and take a break.  At other times I can’t get into the right emotional state because there’s a two-year old attached to my face.

Editing  the last half of the book should move much quicker now that I’ve worked past the majority of the trouble spots and untangled the various plot snarls I caused the last time I made changes.  There are still a few spots that I know will be beastly to work through, namely the climax.  As it sits now it’s far too weak to make it worth all the drama it will take readers to get to it, and that’s a huge problem.  I’ll have to tackle that monster when I get to it.

I’ve got only one more week before the older kids are out of school and then it’s going to get a lot tougher to sit down and work.  I’m hoping that we can find a routine that will allow me regular chunks of time to write.

Wish me luck!

 

 

Posted by: Jodi | June 18, 2014

Odd Writer Terminology: Character Foils

As with any occupation, fiction writing comes with its own set of unique and sometimes bizarre terminology complete with acronyms and words stolen from other trades. Most of these terms refer to specific literary devices.

Today we are going to explore the literary device of the character foil.

Simply put, a character foil is another person in the story that contrasts with the main character. The qualities of this person are used to draw attention to specific qualities in the main character. If the main character is supposed to be arrogant and dimwitted then his foil would be notably humble and smart. Drawing attention to the traits of the foil character and using them to compare with the main character builds greater character depth.

Generally this technique is used best in one of two ways. The first way is that the characters are completely opposite from each other and thus emphasizes the distinction between characters. We see this often between the protagonist and the villain. The second way is that the characters are very similar but with one key difference. This draws intense focus to that key difference.

The term “foil” originated from the jeweler’s trade when gemstones would have foil applied to their undersides to make them appear to shine brighter. By using a literary foil, a character’s qualities are made to stand out and shine.

Example #1

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll is a respectable Victorian gentleman who exhibits restraint and dignity. Hyde is the evil half of Dr. Jekyll that has been repressed. Through a series of experiments Dr. Jekyll frees Mr. Hyde and in effect creates his own foil. Hyde’s wild and base behavior serves as a foil for Dr. Jekyll because it emphasizes the difference between the two. This foil is unique as Jekyll and Hyde are the same person and therefore serves as a metaphor for the duality of human nature.

Example #2

mast-sherlock3-personality-icon-high-resAnother classic example is Sherlock and Watson. Sherlock is a brilliant detective with unmatched powers of deduction. He is also socially awkward and a bit eccentric. His foil is found in Watson who while still intelligent isn’t brilliant and can’t compare with Sherlock. However, Watson knows how to handle himself in social settings and is a gentleman. Moriarty can serve as a foil as well, his apathy for the well-being of others emphasizes both Sherlock and Watson’s humanity.

Example #3

In the Harry Potter books, Harry and Hermione serve as foils for each other. They are opposites in nearly every way. Harry is a pure blood; Hermione has muggle parents. Harry hates studying and isn’t all that smart; Hermione is a brain who spends her free time with her nose tucked in school books. Harry is impulsive; Hermione likes to have a plan. The list goes on. Having them together makes all of those differences stand out. We can find similar foils in each of Harry’s friends. Had the friends all had the same attributes Harry’s character wouldn’t have resonated as strongly with readers.

Example #4

luke and darthThe first three examples showed characters who were opposites, now we shall consider characters who are very similar. Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. They are both strong in the force, are intense, and have terrible pasts – to name a few. Considering their relationship as father and son it makes sense for them to share many traits. The key difference between them is that Luke has chosen to fight for good and Darth has chosen evil. In this they serve as foils for each other that draws attention to the epic battle between good and evil.

 

So What…?

When it comes to character development a writer must perform a balancing act. The reader needs to understand the characters in a way that they come alive in the story and feel realistic. These characters will have certain traits that make them unique. While it would be easy to dash out a brief paragraph explaining why these traits are important to the story (please don’t do that), a much more elegant way to do the same thing is using character foils. Foils will create tension and conflict between characters which in turn makes for more compelling reading. Using this technique will create complexity and poignant statements that create connections with readers.

***

References:

 

Posted by: Jodi | June 11, 2014

Reading for Pleasure

ID-10031677

Image courtesy of graur codrin at freedigitalphotos.net

We all have our favorite books, those stories that we just fall into and never get tired of.  They are the ones that call to us every few years to read again.  Sometimes it’s one specific book, sometimes it’s a very specific genre, but when it’s time to read them we know.

I’ve tried my best to stay on track with my one book a month from the BBC Big Readlist each month and so far I’ve managed to keep up with my goal.  However, my favorite genre has started calling me again and I know I can’t go splurge on pleasure reading until I finish my current book.

It’s starting to drive me nuts.  I’ve learned more from reading these more challenging books that are clearly outside of my comfort zone. The depth of metaphor and language usage alone has been its own education – I can’t deny that I’ll be taking a few cues from these classics, but I need a book that I can enjoy and be immersed in.

Thankfully, I loved this month’s BBC choice, The Lovely Bones, and finished it in only a few days which means that I have some extra time to dive into a novel that had gathered dust on my nightstand.

Brandon Sanderson and the other writers on the Writing Excuses podcast remarked that one of the things that happens to professional writers is that they run out of time to read the books and genres they love because they are spending most of their time either writing and editing their own books or reading books for which that they are asked to give a cover quote.

I find this tragic.  Fiction writers write fiction because they love reading great stories and love writing them even more.  But, by becoming a writer some of the thrill found in reading the pages of great book is lost.  There isn’t enough time to relax and read and when we do we start reading as writers instead of readers and look for flaws and weak prose.

The only other field where this happens is magic.  People who become magicians start out as kids enchanted by watching magic tricks. They love being led to believe that there is magic in the world and want to be a part of it.  As they learn magic tricks the illusion of this true magic is shattered.  When they watch others perform magic, instead of being enthralled and amazed they instead look for how it’s done and how they can recreate the effect.  In essence the magic is gone.

This is why it’s important to take time for pleasure reading and allow the poetry of the words take the reins while turning the writer brain off.  This is easier said than done.  An agent at a recent conference had to take reading vacations, where she didn’t allow herself to think about work and all she did was dive into her stash of guilty pleasure reading.  A different author commented that they were able to enjoy books more when they listened to them rather than read them.  Not being able to see the words helped him turn off his editing brain so that he could experience the story without ruining it for himself.

As for me, anytime I can enjoy a book without interruption is a welcome relief, especially if it’s something that I’ve been eager to read.  In the past I’ve read in binges, sometimes going for months without finishing a book and then dropping everything and consuming three or four in the course of a week.  With the book challenge I’ve had to change my habits to be sure to do some reading each day and it’s something I look forward to.

However you do it, find time to sink into a book you love!

Happy writing, um, I mean reading!

 

Posted by: Jodi | June 4, 2014

One thing led to Another…

I’m a long time fan of the comedian Brian Regan and love his style and sarcasm.   Earlier this year we attended his show, “The Epitome of Hyperbole” and he did a routine about the phrase, “One thing led to another.”

Before that, I hadn’t really thought about how that phrase is just a clever way for the writer to get out of filling in what are probably mundane details that aren’t interesting enough to write.  And in most instances that’s the case, no one wants to read about what led to what if it doesn’t matter.  This is especially true in news article writing where there are strict word limits.  There isn’t space to have a complete story and readers are only looking for the key points.

There is one place where using this phrase is a really bad idea, and that’s fiction writing.  Readers have come to be immersed in a story and not just the key points.  By saying “one thing led to another” the writer is essentially throwing his hands in the air and declaring that the sequence of events is so boring that he doesn’t want to even bother trying to write about them.  If this is happening, he might want to reconsider his career choice.  No story should get boring enough that whole scenes are glossed over.  And if they do, we hope that the writer is wise enough to skip those scenes entirely.

I haven’t noticed the phrase in any of the books I’ve read in the past year, which leads me to believe that most of the world agrees with me about avoiding its use in fiction.  It still happens occasionally, I’m sure.  With millions of writers pecking out billions of words there has to be more than a few that believe that this phrase is awesome. Don’t be one of them.

Brian Regan is right, when you think about it, it is funny thinking about what might have happened when “one thing led to another.”

Check out this short clip -

Posted by: Jodi | May 28, 2014

The Caged Bird Has Flown Free

This morning I was saddened to learn of the passing of renowned poet and icon of her generation, Dr. Maya Angelou.  Although I’ve never been a terrific student of poetry, I have experienced Maya’s work when in a high school English class we were asked to select a book of poetry to study.  I chose I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and spent several weeks of the semester reading and doing my best to analyse  and interpret the different poems.  I’ll admit as a teenager I didn’t have the life experience to truly understand the deeper meaning of her words.  In many ways I still don’t.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her life and works.  She is an inspiration and will be missed.

***

NYTimes Article: Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86

 

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