Writing Q&A 21: Using deus ex machina in storytelling; dealing with punctuation errors in published articles
Published: April 24, 2007
|Using deus ex machina in storytelling|
The phrase comes from ancient Greek and Roman dramas, when a seemingly insolvable situation was miraculously solved by a god brought on stage by an elaborate crane. Thus, deus ex machina, literally "god from the machine." While writers might not send gods to swoop in and save the day all that often anymore, there is the temptation to introduce artificial or improbable elements to resolve a difficult conflict. A character surrounded by snarling wolves, backing toward the edge of a steep cliff, who wakes up to learn it was all just a dream. Or two friends down and out in Vegas, hounded by thugs they owe money to, who hit it big on the slots.
Aristotle criticized the device as clumsy, and contemporary readers will do the same. For one thing, it can present a rather unlikely circumstance, one so improbable that it strains the reader's ability to believe in the story. When a long lost aunt dies and leaves a poverty-stricken family with a huge inheritance, the reader is going to wonder where that aunt came from. And how convenient that her death comes just as the landlord is knocking on the door to begin the eviction process. Of course, anything can happen in fiction, but the writer's job is to make it believable, and a sudden solution appearing out of nowhere isn't believable.
A deus ex machina also ignores the fact that a character is an important player in the action. Characters should be active in bringing about the action, whether they intend to or not. In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby is shot due to a moment of mistaken identity. It seems out of the blue, but Gatsby is an active participant in what brings that action about. He pursues the already-married Daisy. A group including Gatsby, Daisy, and her husband Tom travel to the city where Gatsby pressures Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him. She and Gatsby drive home in Gatsby's car. Daisy, frantic at the wheel, hits and kills a woman who happens to be Tom's mistress. The woman's husband tracks down Gatsby, thinking he's the culprit. Gatsby didn't orchestrate the mistaken identity, but he did put pressure on Daisy, which resulted in her distracted driving. When she hit the woman, he orchestrated the aftermath, getting Daisy home to try and protect her from what she'd done.
When the man wakes from the dream, or the two friends hit it big in Vegas, or the family gets a windfall, the character's actions are rendered irrelevant. They have almost nothing to do with what happens. And why bother learning about a character if what he or she does doesn't matter?
|I recently had an essay published in an anthology. While the content was not changed, my punctuation was. Reading the essay is painful to me because it's punctuated incorrectly. It's my first publication and I'd like to be able to use it in my portfolio, but will it reflect poorly on my writing skills? If I use it as a clip, should I mention that the editing is not mine?|
First of all, congratulations on the publication. The first is especially exciting, and I'm sorry the editing has marred your experience. Usually the keen eye of an editor has a positive impact, and I hope you can go into the next publication not stinging too badly from this one.
Many editors will run edits by an author, sometimes in the form of what's called a galley proof. This is essentially a document that shows how the text will appear in the publication, formatting and all. A good writer will be open to these changes. Editors, after all, are working toward the same aim you are: presenting the best work possible. Getting author approval on edits is common with literary journals and book publications, but less so with magazines and newspapers. Each publication has its own process. In the future, you can ask to see any edits before publication, and some publications may grant this.
While that's all good to keep in mind for the next publication, what do you do with this one? If the changes aren't egregiously wrong, let the work stand on its own. You'll look like an amateur pointing them out after it has been published. If they are egregious, then you might mention that when using that work as a sample. You can avoid the situation entirely, though, by sending your version of the essay when called to provide writing samples. While it's common to send a clip right out of the publication for magazine and newspaper articles, you can certainly send your own manuscript for samples from books and anthologies. And don't make an issue out of why you're choosing to go that route. Snipping about past editors can make you seem like a writer who's difficult to work with, even if your concerns are valid.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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