Thursday, May 31, 2007

Q & A 112 Can I Write Like Grisham?

Just wondering about something -- the dreaded Deus Ex Machina (aka DEM).

I think I understand the concept but I see DEMs in literature more often than we admit. I'm thinking specifically about The Pelican Brief (Grisham) because something I'm writing has a similar pattern and I'm afraid I'm going to need a DEM to get some closure.

In that story, the protags are uncovering a conspiracy, piece by piece. But there really isn't any closure until they find a videotape, made by a victim of the conspiracy, who spells the whole thing out and validates what the protags found.

Is that a DEM? More importantly (to me), can I get away with something that might be as DEMish?

Julia Roberts wrote the Pelican Brief without seeing the videotape, and as you say, she and Denzel Washington were uncovering the conspiracy piece by piece. The videotape merely validates their findings.

Compare that to the same novel told in the POV of a detective investigating the deaths of the Supreme Court justices, and getting nowhere. Suddenly, in the next-to last chapter, as he's preparing for bed, a pelican flies in his window, drops a crucial incriminating videotape, and flies out.

That, even Grisham couldn't get away with.


Bernita said...

I'm considering having my ghost buster offered a machine that de-materializes spectres without fuss or effort. The inventor will call it the Dooze.
Also, a zombie.

writtenwyrdd said...

As a reader, I'm fairly liberal in my willingness to suspend my disbelief. If the writer sets up the various hints and logic trails that make the sudden deus ex machina make sense, the revelation makes it not a deus ex machina but just one more moment when I, the reader, get to feel smart.

It's a good point, though. I suppose it is pretty easy to drop in a DEM when you are writing.

Anonymous said...

Writ, I (the guy who sent the question in) can pass your test. My ending will be less a DEM than Grisham's, really. I didn't have a problem with Grisham's ending when I read it. Still, it could be construed as too lucky of a break for Julia Roberts that the dead lawyer cared enough to make the videotape to be released if he died. Why did he care -- he'd be dead!

Evil Editor said...

He'd be striking from the grave at his killers. Revenge.

Dave said...

Star Trek made a good living off of DEM endings, usually time travel silliness. Stargate SG! just experienced a god-like moment in that the beings are now so pwerful, they are gods. This stuff is only for the dedicated, devoted and sadly deluded. I opoint it out because it is easy for everyone to see and not to painful to experience.

At some point in a doomsday conspiracy story, the protagonists must realize what they are finding is not as it seems and will actually result in the disaster. The big question is, why do they need the videotape to validate what they found and how do they use that videotape.

The answer to the first is to convince others of the conspiracy and the answer to the latter should be believable. We joked that Sherlock Holmes type mysteries got so involved that it took a trained chimpanzee with a syringe in a locked room to kill someone while wearing a red hat and drinking tea. I don't think you want your novel to be on that level of unbelievabilty.

Think about your story and the ending. Think about how the evidence that validates their findings is discovered and what is done with it. There might be another way to reach the concluding chapters.

Beth said...

A true deus ex machina is not foreshadowed. It's not part of the plot. It just flies out of the clouds at the end of the story to winch the characters out of the hopeless mire of their messy mistakes. It's actually kind of rare to see these days, at least in its overt form. However, it can take on subtle disguises. Soon to be published writer Sherry Thomas blogged about how some romance writers rely on it to reap what they never sowed. She calls it Sudden Squash Syndrome.

blogless_troll said...

I thought the Pelican Brief was the one where Tom Cruise and that kid are running from Tommy Lee Jones, until Matt Damon sues for insurance fraud.

Rei said...

Worst DEM I've read: The Andromeda Strain. How is humanity saved from the horrible celestial pathogens? Why, they all collectively mutate at once into something that eats rubber, and then again into a harmless organism ascending into the sky. Pretty bad.

Of course, like all cliches, a DEM could be parodied. My next novel is to have the prime antagonist guy literally killed by a DEM. The climactic battle takes place on an ancient Greek-style amphitheatre. Right when defeat seems inevitable, a literal deus ex machina (god machine) falls on the antagonist, having been destabilized by the combat.

Anonymous said...

"Right when defeat seems inevitable, a literal deus ex machina (god machine) falls on the antagonist, having been destabilized by the combat."

Rei, that is brilliant. Let me know when you write that!

Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or was "War of the Worlds" incredibly DEM?

Is it just me, or was "Signs" incredibly a takeoff on War of the Worlds and thus as well DEM?

Is it just me, or does "Transformers" look like the same exact movie and I'm afraid to get very excited by it?

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm stupid, but I didn't think of the bacterial infection that the Martian aliens contracted in War of the Worlds was a deus ex machina. It seemed real probable to me.

Provided the Martian cells provide the little buggers what they need to survive. ;-)

phoenix said...

Well, in that Wells set it up so God had planned the evolution of both Earth and Mars' environments from the beginning of those planets' histories as a way to thwart the invasion He knew would come, then War of the Worlds can either be seen as the ultimate DEM (while it was a god's handiwork planned far in advance, that information is withheld from the reader until the end) or view it as a plausible outcome given the way measles and small pox spread through Native American cultures upon the arrival of the Europeans.

For its time, and if you look at the real world it was commenting on and the themes it touched on, WoW was pretty brilliant. SF at its best, opening up dialog about science, predestination, and manifest destiny.