Deus Ex Machina, Or, Wouldn’t This Be A Good Time For A Piece Of Rhubarb Pie?

As Writer we think we are smart. Sometimes too smart. Even the best of us will occasionally put on our clever trousers when we sit down to write. We have put in the ultimate fake-out ending. When readers reach our magnificent O’ Henry twist, we expect them to smack their heads and exclaim, “I didn’t see that coming!” Normally they just scratch their heads, and say, “Where did that come from?”

You have pulled a classic Creative Writing blunder known as deus ex machina. It is Latin for “God in the machine.” It comes from the Middle Ages where the plays were so bad that writers couldn’t think of anything else. The hero would get himself into a jam he could not manage, and then an actor would be lowered from the top of the stage (on the machine) playing the role of Jesus, or Apollo, or Isis. And by a wave of their divine hand, the problem is fixed miraculously. We are left with a warning, some bit of heavenly wisdom normally regarding pride, greed, or anger, so that we in the audience will not make the hero’s same mistake.

The Cure

The way to avoid the hero’s salvation coming out of nowhere is by the use of foreshadowing. Don’t send the cavalry over the hill if we have not yet read about the cavalry. If you want an O’ Henry twist, then do it, but throw down some bread crumbs throughout the book so that we are not so dumbfounded.

You are not in danger of giving away the ending if you foreshadow properly. Conversely, you are in true peril if you fail to foreshadow. Your reader will not think you are a clever writer, just a bad one. You don’t create fans by giving the impression that you are stupid. And to think this failing is impressed because of an effort to seem ingenious.

Mea Culpa

If I may embarrass myself for a moment, I recently did it. That’s right, I pulled a dxm, as I now call it. My hero got pulled from the fire by a character who did not exist until the last page. Okay, he did exist, but no one knew that but me. And this character does appear twice, but as someone else.

So I had to make some changes, but don’t we all when we’re writing? I had to toss around some bread crumbs. I know how it is. We who are clever writers don’t want to spoil the surprise, so we leave no information at all. But instead of clever it’s obtuse.

You can foreshadow your ending by mentioning careful and appropriately placed bit of information that seem innocent enough, but are the tidbits the reader can use. So when our fans reach the end of the book and see what we have done, they can remember what they have already read and put things together, and then you will have the head smack and not the scalp scratch.

Rhubarb Pie Fixes Everything

Garrison Keillor, host of the weekly NPR radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” is a masterful entertainer. He uses fake sponsors as part of the gimmick. One of his regular “sponsors” is Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie & Rhubarb Pie Filling.

Garrison tells a tale where he puts each member of the audience individually in the center of his story. First one thing goes wrong, then another, and pretty soon you are over your head. And when things could not possibly get worse, Garrison cuts in with the happy music and says, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for a piece of rhubarb pie? Nothing removes the taste of shame and humiliation like a piece of rhubarb pie.” And then everyone sings the cheerful jingle.

Garrison is pulling a good ol’ fashion dxm, that’s for sure. But he’s intending to do it for humorous reasons, and for him, it works. When we dxm the end of our novels, it is not entertaining at all. All of our anticipated “Ah-Ha” moments will dissolve into “Uh-oh” calamities, and there is nothing funny about that.

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