First off, new Warbreaker chapter: Chapter Fifty-Eight
Epilogue next week. (And yes, this will be a two-book cycle, so there is more to come in this setting. Make comments and suggestions here.)
Finally, after a couple weeks of going through them, it’s time for my
Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)
#1: Deus Ex Machina
A few years ago, I–with everyone else–watched the final Lord of the Rings movie. At the climax, Aragorn shows up with fleets of ghost ships and saves the day. As a viewer, I found myself oddly disappointed with this ending. I couldn’t put my finger on why. In the second movie, virtually the same thing had happened–Gandalf had shown up with a new army to save the besieged people. Why did I love that ending but feel annoyed with the ending of movie three?
(And, yes, this is only a gripe with the movie–didn’t feel that way about the ending of the books. Also, to be perfectly clear, I loved the LotR movies, even the third one. The reason I’m doing this list is because these are things that I think are elements of bad storytelling that even the professionals use–partially, the theory behind these essays is to prove that you just CAN’T get everything right. I want to look critically at my own writing and that of other people who do a very good job and, for the sake of understanding the process, try to pick out why they used the methods they did.)
Eventually, I came up with the reason why movie three bothered me and movie two didn’t. Movie two set up a different expectation. When Gandalf left, he promised he’d return in a certain time. He set up a conflict for the movie which was this: Can the heroes survive until help comes.
In movie three, I didn’t feel like that was the expectation. The heroes weren’t trying to hold out until help came–they were trying to win. Therefore, even when Aragon showed up to save them, I felt like the battle had been lost. The heroes failed, and they needed an external force to come and rescue them. That force, in the form of the ghosts, was completely indestructible and undefeatable–and so, all of the struggling, fighting, and dying everyone else had done was pretty much useless. If they’d just given up and not fought, agreeing to surrender and be slaves, Aragon STILL would have come along and STILL liberated them–and a lot more people would have been alive.
We call it Deus Ex Machina–when the heroes need to be saved by an external force that undermines their own efforts to save themselves. It can be done well, it can be done poorly. However, it’s almost impossible to write the kind of fiction we do without including the occasional salvation from an unexpected source.
The trick as a writer, then, is to do it like movie two–in my opinion–instead of movie three. Make the salvation that comes at the end surprising (because the reader has gotten so wrapped up in the action that they forget about it) but still well-foreshadowed. More importantly, make it fulfill execrations, not undermine them. If you’re going to have them get saved at the end, have that salvation come as the result of a character climax for a main character. (Which is why Han Solo showing up at the end of Star Wars (IV worked so well.) Or, have the heroes DO something to earn the salvation.
The trick with all of this is that no matter what you do, someone is going to find it a little unbelievable. (Particularly, I’ve found, in adventure fiction.) What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and in the end, you just have to try your best to foreshadow and plan, then hope that the emotional impact of the ending on the characters is what really drives the plot.
Either way, that’s #1–I find that we authors use it a lot, and a lot of us are actually pretty bad at making it work right. Hopefully, I can learn to do it better myself as my writing improves and my career continues.