Possibly the biggest opponent to fantasy and science fiction is the concept of Deus Ex Machina. literarydevices.net gave a description of the term, but I’d like to add to that. When something arises that the reader isn’t prepared for to resolve the conflict, the reader will be unsatisfied with the ending. Let’s be honest, as readers, we WANT to believe the ending is plausible. We’ll take some pretty hanky explanations as background or foreshadowing.
In The Two Towers, Gandalf basically said, Just hold off for three days and I’ll come kill whatever bad guys are left. They fought for three days. Gandalf saved the day. No one batted an eyelash.
I’ve been speaking with Quintessential Editor about his book, editing mine, and outlining Sojourn in Despair. That means I’ve been talking about magic systems like crazy. Corey and I were talking about it, and I’d mentioned Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. I’m telling you, if you haven’t read these, and you write fantasy, stop writing and read this. It’s a solid group of guidelines. Sanderson’s First Law is, “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”
I love fantasy. I love Sanderson’s work in particular. The reason I love it though is because it has a sense of wonder. Bad fantasy destroys that sense of wonder with a sense of impossibility. So when I read that law, I translate that to mean, “The better the reader understands the magic of the world, the more likely he’s going to accept that magic solved the problem.”
In The Journals of Bob Drifter, I took great care easing the reader into the magic system. Some say I took too much care. But I take a great amount of satisfaction from the fact that no one has (as of yet) complained that the ending was too easy. I spent some 110,000 words building up a villain that seemed unstoppable. But as Grimm was doing dastardly things, I was explaining through a few characters how his power worked while also explaining how Bob’s power worked. I feel if I hadn’t have done both, people would have called me out. Actually, I was more concerned the reader would discover the trick too soon. If that’s happened, no one said so yet. If you’ve read the book feel free to comment below regarding your thoughts.
I’m wracking my brain trying to determine a book that really failed at this. I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m sure I’ve read it, but I can’t honestly recall. But how do you prevent it? Should you?
Should you? Well, not necessarily. (OK, you should TOTALLY prevent Deus Ex Machina, but you don’t always need a magic system which requires a degree in physics to understand). Refer to the rule. “An author’s ability to SOLVE conflict….”
What if you wanted to CAUSE it? Children’s, and young reader fantasy stories do this a lot. No one sweeps in and saves the day with magic, but quite often magic is the cause of the problem. I’d argue this is the case with Lord of the Rings. Magic is far more responsible problems than it is solutions (Gandalf’s rescue included). So…if you’re working on a story where magic is getting thrown around like crazy and all it does is make life miserable for the characters, GO FOR IT! I don’t care how the magic system works. It’s magic!
But what if the man is going to rely on magic? Well then, the degree with which that magic is going to be relied upon must be that understood by the reader. Here are a few things I try to do to avoid the problem.
One: If Three is Good Enough for Tolkien, it’s good enough for me: I consider this the LEAST an author can do. I use this with foreshadowing and magic plot devices. I make sure to mention the “trick” at least three times. (Free autographed copy of my book if you can name the three instances I did this in The Journals of Bob Drifter.)
Two: The Mentor Magic Learning Montage: I’m less and less a fan of this every time I see it and use it. In 1,200, I took the mentor away JUST to avoid this. Inevitably in most fantasy sagas, there’s the “mentor” who appears JUST as the guy develops his power. How handy he shows up just in time to teach the guy how to become the hero. It’s a common thing and not really a “sin” in writing. I’ve just personally grown tired of it. (Though I did use a mentor archetype in New Utopia. Even then, I added a twist just to be different.) What this mentor can do is teach the user, and through him the reader, how the magic system works. In these types of stories, there’s usually a “hint” (see above) at how something thought impossible could happen. Or at least they do this next trick.
Three: Hang a Lantern: When the character does something impossible, and another character goes, “How could that be!” The reader gets a clue that this is an intentional thing. Then calmly waits for the explanation on how that should happen. If you use this, you NEED to explain that later in the story.
Four: Internal Dialogue: This is the last one I use. I used it most in 1,200, but I like it because it’s different. The author can use conflict and internal dialogue to express learned experiences and ideas. You can use the point of view of another character as well. In New Utopia, one of my upcoming books, the hero, Wilum, does something impressive. His mentor character (mentioned above) notices, then considers how it was done. You actually see this quite a lot in Anime.
How do you avoid Deus Ex Machina? Do you have a trick I don’t know about? Please share it.
Thanks for reading,