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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Pulling Levers in the God Machine

By Spencer Ellsworth, @spencimus

Part of The How They Do It Series


JH: A deus ex machina ending usually kills a novel, but a little "god manipulation" is common in some genresand readers are fine with that. Spencer Ellsworth share thoughts on how much readers will accept when it comes to the "unexplained win."

Spencer Ellsworth is the author of The Great Faerie Strike from Broken Eye Books and the Starfire space opera trilogy from Tor. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children, and would really like a war mammoth if you know a guy.

Take it away Spencer…

Deus ex machina is never far from any literary discussion, a term like de facto and al dente, a la carte and deja vu in the list of foreign phrases now common parlance in English. Sprinkle ‘em in your speech and you’ll sound real fancified.

And we all know where it came from, right? Aristotle, throwing shade at Euripides, criticized the practice of having gods descend on platforms via pulleys to resolve a play just when everything seemed lost. In Poetics he said:
“Narratives ought to prefer likely events, even if impossible, to improbable possible ones. Stories should not be made from illogical parts: in the best case, they should contain nothing illogical, unless it comes from outside the plot itself…”

This is a very long-winded, Greek way of saying that you need to earn your ending.

We want to see characters succeed in solving problems, defeating baddies, gaining romance and finding happiness because of their own valiant efforts, not because a mysterious force intervenes to solve things for our characters. That’s Writing 101.

However… we should give Euripedes a little bit more context. After all, his audience did indeed live in a world where they assigned storms, shipwrecks, disease, and war to capricious gods. Most of one’s life in the ancient Western world was spent hoping that one was on the gods’ good side. After all, they didn’t hesitate to kill… everything.

If Euripedes had gotten a chance to respond to Aristotle’s critique, he likely would have said that all fate is in the hands of the gods, therefore characters by definition cannot “earn” an ending.

In that same way, we’ll often accept a little bit of deus ex machina based on our own values and judgments about what makes up a “mysterious force” culturally. It’s especially prevalent in fantasy, where writers struggle with how much magic to explain and how much to leave mysterious.

(Here's more with 5 Common Problems With Endings)  

Consider how many movies or shows end with two quasi-magical beings expositing while throwing balls of light at each other. In the finale to WandaVision, Wanda’s red CGI splashed against Agatha’s purple CGI, and all of us, raised on Harry Potter, the Force, and various other magical handwavium, accepted that, well, something was going on.

Few would call this a deus ex machina—but it relied on our collective perception of magical beams of light, based on a bazillion movies with a CGI budget. It relied on a mysterious, unexplained force to resolve the plot, and most of us weren’t bothered because, well, that’s how movies are.

Now look at another wizard battle—about half an hour into The Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf and Saruman have a brief tiff. Through clever camera work, the camera establishes some rules of magical wizard combat quickly. They use their staffs to whack each other from a distance. Losing your staff, as Gandalf does to Saruman, means you lose your ability to hit the other wizard, and then the other wizard spins you round in an unwilling breakdance on your ear.

None of this is in the books, but Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had to find a way to represent a wizard fight that would make sense onscreen, and had to save their CGI budget in the process.

Gandalf’s magic is never really explained, but Peter Jackson cleverly made the staff integral to every magical act Ian McKellen huffed and hmmmed through for all twelve hours of film, so that we viewers could nod along and say, “OK, he has to have the staff.” In The Two Towers, Wormtongue’s goons fail to get the staff away in time. In The Return of the King, we see just how powerful the Ringwraith Lord is when he shatters the staff with his spell. Jackson never explains why the staff matters. But it immediately makes any scene with Gandalf powerful and dangerous. It’s like knowing that Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite.

(Here's more with Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending)   

Think of how many fantasy novels essentially end with a kind of lump of magic thrown at another lump. I love The Wheel of Time more than it deserves, but the ending of The Eye of the World is dramatic more for the revelations about the Dragon Reborn than the final fight, when Rand grabs a bunch of magic and throws it at the bad guys. It’s well-represented visually—Rand is fed by a cord of white light, his opponent by one of darkness, and he uses his gleaming sword to cut the cord—but there’s no way to really suss out logistics. Why does Rand succeed? What effect does it have, exactly? I’ve read The Eye of the World a good ten times and never been quite sure of the fine details.

Brandon Sanderson is not my favorite writer—I find his stuff generally dry. But I can see why he’s been so successful, even after finishing the aforementioned Wheel of Time. More than any other fantasy writer, Sanderson insists on logistical rules for magic, a system that runs by quasi-Newtonian principles, in which magical energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred by some medium of power, sometimes metal, sometimes written incantations, sometimes an object. A magic system is a sort of “god machine,” but in Sanderson’s case, he’s taken apart the machine and showed us, bit by bit, why it works.

That doesn’t mean you have to lose all the mystery and darkness! The fantasy genre’s appeal lies partially in its mystery, its exploration of the unknown. And any fiction needs a little of the mystery and capriciousness that Aristotle’s audience assigned to the gods’ whims.

In Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler, a “pattern” is created in which Mary, a powerful telepath, links to others, who link to others, all lending each other strength. This becomes a threat to the character Doro, an immortal life-force that lives by jumping bodies, who has been shepherding the “sensitives” for years.

“Transition” is key to the development of Butler’s telepaths (not in the sense we currently use the word). It means the moment when psychic sensitives come fully into their powers. Before Mary, the transition kills or drives most telepaths insane. It made Doro jump from body to body. Mary speculates that if Doro could have survived transition fully, he might be a lot like her.

(Here's more with 4 Essentials of Unforgettable Endings)  

Butler doesn’t get into the weeds—unlike Sanderson, she doesn’t have a detailed system for telepathy dependent on certain kinds of incantations or a special fuel—but she establishes just enough of the rules that we can understand the conclusion. Butler represents a kind of psychic battle between Doro, now trying to possess Mary, and Mary’s entire Pattern, which absorbs Doro and spreads him out into nothingness across many psychic paths.

It’s not a visual conclusion. It’s not really even something we can begin to visualize. But because Butler has explained just enough, it works. We understand that Mary earned it.

So let’s all take a moment to pity poor Euripedes, whose only sin was in fulfilling his audience’s cultural and logistical expectations, rather than superseding them. It’s OK, Euripedey, buddy. At least you gave us a way to sound real fancified. And hey, you earned it.


A Revolution in Faerie

Ridley Enterprises has brought industry to the Otherworld, churning out magical goods for profit. But when they fire Charles the gnome, well, they’ve gone too far. Although it goes against a gnome's respectable nature, he takes to the City Beyond streets, fighting for workers’ rights.

The Otherworld's first investigative reporter, Jane, is looking for a story. She finds it in a high society murder among werewolf nobility, a murder tied to Charles's firing.

Jane and Charles must unite the fey workers, deal with their forbidden feelings for one another, and bring the Ridleys to justice. They win, and a Faerie revolution will bring justice. They lose, and a dark, ancient power will consume both worlds.

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1 comment:

  1. Nicely stated. I do fantasy and it is so hard to avoid the big magical ending. My hope is that if I set out a string of clues and forshadowing the suddenness of the dramatic conclusion is dampened.

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