“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” –Isaac Newton
Deus Ex Machina: “A person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
At Drinking Café Latte at 1pm, I discuss a range of topics that are interesting to me, but I spend most of my energy writing about writing, or stories, or the tools that make either one easier on me. Today, I want to discuss a matter that addresses a little of everything.
As a periodic novelist, meaning I binge write between periods of general inactivity thanks to the juggling of large projects that require extensive amounts of my time, thought process, and dedicated memory (the lattermost of which I’m usually on short supply these days), I care about telling good stories, and that means I care about understanding what it takes to make a story good—no, great!
One of my consistent challenges with every story I write is figuring out its inciting incident, the moment of opportunity that kicks off the drama, why it should play as the opening gong to a crazy tale of intrigue, revenge, or ridiculousness (for example), and what to do once that action is in motion.
The concept of inciting story through an event should be straightforward. If you think about the movie The Terminator, for example, you may say that the inciting event is the moment when the hero, Kyle Reese, transports to 1984 Los Angeles from a bleak 2029 future, where the robots have already taken over (which given Boston Dynamics’s running and jumping robots, and Google’s new AI hair appointment scheduler, and, well, robots that run for public office, we may still be on track for this bleak robot-ruled future—yay!), to locate and protect the mother of the future resistance, Sarah Connor.
What follows is a series of dramatic events that leads Kyle to Sarah, leads the Terminator to Sarah, leads the characters to all sorts of conflicts and romance (the romantic part involving Kyle and Sarah, not either one and the Terminator—that would be a different kind of story), all toward a blistering conclusion where Sarah must protect Kyle from the Terminator and ultimately defeat it. Did I mention she’s just a waitress when the movie begins? By the end, she’s serving robot destruction on a platter and then rides off into the stormy sunset with the future leader of the resistance in her belly. If you haven’t seen it, you should, even though I just spoiled the whole thing. Spoiler Alert! Never mind. You’ve had nearly 35 years to catch up.
For a more recent example, I’ve finally started watching Game of Thrones late last year, after everyone I know has basically told me the whole plot in one form or another (and I will probably read the books at some point), and I’m currently reaching the end of Season 2, the final episode being the one episode I’ve already seen, back when it was still new, and clearly didn’t understand because I hadn’t seen any of the ones before it, so I’m essentially already caught up through that season. Even though I wasn’t much of a fan in the beginning (and I’m still kind of above meh about it if I’m being honest), the dramatic turns it takes is beginning to grow on me, enough for me to start thinking about how all of the chaos in Westeros begins. Now, we know that the story actually begins in the ages prior to the start of what we see (or read), as any story would, but the really crazy stuff begins with the invitation Ned Stark receives from his best friend, King Robert Baratheon, to serve as his Hand, or more specifically, when Ned accepts the invitation.
Ah, there it is: the inciting incident. Even though a lot is happening in this first part of the story, the real drama throughout the series kicks off with Ned’s decision to move down to King’s Landing to serve as the king’s Hand (an important position if you’re not keeping score), a decision that, while noble, through many actions and reactions becomes the undoing of him and his family.
And, it’s these actions and reactions that keep the momentum of the story moving. Eddard Stark (Ned) makes a series of righteous decisions, but in the depraved world of Westeros, and specifically in the depraved House Lannister, the righteous are punished, and so, too, is Ned. By the end of the second season (and the book, I believe), House Stark is fractured so horribly that the kids are long separated from safety, and their home turf, Winterfell, is vulnerable to sieges, the latter of which would never happen under Ned Stark’s watch, had he refused the invitation. His righteous loyalty to his best friend, the king, is a noble choice that, through action and reaction, also proves a deadly one.
That’s interesting, right?
What makes the story more interesting is the fact that the family is scattered because Ned Stark is foolish enough to remain loyal to his best friend, Robert Baratheon, the king, even after Robert dies, leaving his son, Joffrey (the brattiest and most disturbed kid on television), king. By doing the right thing (which is the wrong thing in the Lannisters’ eyes), Ned is given the ultimate punishment, and his family, by proxy, is upended.
Now, Ned is the hero of the opening act (the whole first season of the show, and I believe the whole first book, called A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), and any author who wants to keep his hero ahead of the villains will construct the story in such a way that Ned gets out of his predicament with the new king, Joffrey, in some clever or fantastical way. But George R.R. Martin doesn’t do that. Rather than pull a genie out of a hat, the deus ex machina way, producing an earthquake or a meteor or something to disrupt the public execution that Ned finds himself faced with, giving him a chance to escape with his family to “safety”—in the world of Game of Thrones, there no such place as safety—Martin lets his protagonist die. Yep. Axe, chop, dead. Action and reaction. The hero finds himself in an unwinnable situation, thanks to the polar shifts of positive and negative in each scene, and succumbs to his failure in the climactic event. The story’s not over, of course, far from it, but Ned’s part in the story ends via the chain reaction he ignites by accepting his role as Hand of the King.
According to Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, a story works according to how well its scenes shift in polarity. In other words, a story moves according to whether the scene ends in a different place from where it begins: a positive becomes a negative or a double-positive; a negative becomes a positive or a double-negative (not to be confused with a double negative in grammar, which I can’t not recommend you use in writing). It also depends on the narrative arc of each scene—inciting incident, rising action, etc.—but I’ll save that discussion for another time. What matters here is that every action in story has an equal and opposite reaction.
Deus ex machina ignores that structure, and that’s why readers hate it. It breaks the story.
You may be a writer; or not. I think this discussion is important, however, because it helps to know why stories work, even if you have no interest in writing one. Sometimes we see a movie or read a book and we know we don’t enjoy it, even though we can’t figure out why. We often say, “It’s okay,” or “It’s lame,” or “I’d rather go fishing in a sewer pipe than watch that garbage again,” but we don’t know what about the story drives us to think that way.
Often we can figure it out based on how well people act and react to the narrative arcs they’re given. In The Terminator, when Sarah Connor sees the rifle in Kyle Reese’s hand as he enters the night club, she could immediately scream, kick him in the balls, and run out of there, right into the arms of the Terminator itself. Just as easily, Kyle could refuse to utter the film’s other famous line, “Come with me if you want to live,” giving Sarah no cause to trust him with her life. Sure, these things could happen (or fail to happen as the case may be), and Sarah may still somehow survive the night. But, chances are, to survive, she would need a little deus ex machina on her side, like the Terminator accidentally triggering a button that causes it to self-destruct, for example, and James Cameron, the film’s writer and director, is smarter than that. No, he writes his characters in such a way that they must do specific things in action and reaction to other specific things, in order to reach a point in the story where a specific thing can either lead the characters to victory or doom them to failure.
Fortunately, James Cameron decided to make his hero, Kyle Reese, a noble guy who does the right thing. Unfortunately, Kyle’s noble act also gets him killed.
A bit of a sidebar, but what is it with righteousness and death? That’s another discussion for another day, but certainly worth thinking about.
Anyway, next time you read or watch anything, see if each event naturally progresses from the last, and if it gets there through sensible action and reaction of its characters, or if an act of divine intervention moves it forward. For that matter, see if it happens in real life. If you ask your girlfriend to marry you, see what happens next.
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P.S. It seems all of the main places and characters in Game of Thrones are so well-known that my Microsoft Word spellchecker automatically accepts them as proper spellings. Hilarious.