Friday, March 20, 2009

Parent Ex Machina

Some of you will be familiar with the term deus ex machina. But for those of you who aren't, the OED says:
"A power, event, person, or thing that comes in the nick of time to solve a difficulty; providential interposition, esp. in a novel or play."
It's not a good thing. It's cheating.

The term comes from the time in performing arts when, if the plot had gotten hopelessly away from the main characters and the playwright had utterly written himself into a corner, suddenly GOD INTERVENES. In the form of a figure lowered into the scene in a basket. Yeah, seriously.

So the hero is suddenly face-to-face with the dragon, and oh whoops, that's right, he lost his sword to that boggy tart in act 2, crap, I didn't think of that. So all he has now is a salad fork... well, shit. Oh! I know! GOD INTERVENES and turns his fork into a bazooka! Ta-dah! That's some good plot writing, huh?

No. It's some crap plot writing, and the reason is that the only satisfactory way for a conflict to be resolved is for THE PROTAGONIST TO INTERVENE. That's what your damn protagonist is for!

Now, in children's books, this is a particular problem. It's especially tempting, because children experience outside powers that providentially interpose themselves all the time-- they're called parents. Parents swoop in to solve kids' problems, give them things they couldn't have gotten by themselves, and save them from danger. That's real life.

But it's not real storytelling. So the next time you're tempted to lower a parent or other powerful adult into your plot to make things easier, DON'T.

To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton,
We don't tell children stories to teach them that there are dragons. Children know there are dragons; they meet them every day. We tell children stories to teach them that dragons can be slain.


PurpleClover said...

Ooh, thanks. I will now go back through my MS and check for any Godly interventions that maybe I thought I was just being slick.

Granted it isn't a children's book but I think the advice helps nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

Great reminder and awesome quote! I'm adding it to my collection. :)

Ann Finkelstein said...

My pet peeve is when the author uses magic to solve the problem, especially if magic wasn’t previously part of the plot.

This cartoon expresses the same idea.

Anonymous said...

***clapping*** Good post! Good post!

I've been thinking about this. The thing is, how many different ways can you get rid of the parents? And at what point do those means become cliche? It a great plot challenge.

Sam said...

Word up times a thousand!g

Jo Treggiari said...

Wonderful blog. Thanks for this. My latest manuscript is a fantasy and there are magical elements and a mixture of magical and mundane challenges but I made sure that my boy hero solved most of his problems with brain power and the support of his friends rather than pulling out a wand at the last minute.

Judy said...

I knew all about being careful with parents in stories, and pretty much write with very little parent involvement, and using them only as general characters. But some of my writing has been criticized for not having ENOUGH parent involvement, because, of course, 'they're only kids' and 'kids aren't allowed to go off on their own any more like you used to do when you were a kid.'

Mostly this comes from my crit groups, but had to add a parent scene in the revision of one of my books for an editor once.

Anonymous said...

Love this post, EA. Can't wait to direct my students to this one.

Jolie said...

So an example could be: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows scene when dead!Dumbledore appears to advise Harry in that train station in the sky.

Deirdre Mundy said...

EA, just when I think you couldn't be any cooler, you bring CHESTERTON into it! Are all kidlit editors that awesome?

Deirdre Mundy said...

BTW-- I would like to point out that, while Deus Ex Machina is bad by modern standards, the plays which originally used it were part of a religious festival, so having the Greek Gods intervene to fix things kind of makes sense in that context.

Though my favorite ancient playwright's least successful play IS the one where Hercules magically makes everything better.....

Anonymous said...

It's worse than cheating; it's boring. That's the one thing that readers won't stand for.

I have seen deus ex machina work before ... in comedies, as a joke.

Anonymous said...

I applaud...long and loud.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear about the origins of the device (literary and mechanical) this refers to Greek gods, not God in the Jewish or Christian traditions, yes?

Anonymous said...

'We tell children stories to teach them that dragons can be slain'.

But can the parent not be featured in the story to help teach their child this?

David Macinnis Gill said...

"'We tell children stories to teach them that dragons can be slain'.

But can the parent not be featured in the story to help teach their child this?"

No. Let the story do that.

Word said...

Annon said:

But can the parent not be featured in the story to help teach their child this?

I'll take a stab at this.

No. Well maybe. Sorta. Depends. Um, on second thought, no.



Too much like real life. Parents are always swooping in. It's what we do.

But in children's fiction - part of the fun for kids reading (imho) is to connect with a protag and feel empowered. Empowerment is huge.

What fun would Pippy Longstocking have been if she had parents around telling her how to clean the floors?

Would My Side of the Mountain have been better if Dad was there giving instructions on how to make a fishing hook?

Sure, you can have parents as supporting cast members. They can even throw their two cents in at times. But kids don't want to read about another kid doing what their parents say. They get enough of that in real life. Borrring.

Anonymous said...

This parent ex machina problem is exactly why Sara Pennypacker's Clementine books are so brilliant- lovely parents who are present in their child's life, but child takes charge of her problems and solves them herself, in a believable yet compelling way. This may not always be what adult critique partners want to read- but it's what child readers demand and deserve to read.

Christian H said...


Yes, it derives from Classical gods, not the Abrahamic God. However, some literature has employed deus ex machina with the Judeo-Christian God in mind, and this, of course, was much of the point of the stories.

C. S. Lewis uses both divine intervention and protagonist struggles to teach Christian morals, for instance. It's a matter of how you do it.

Anonymous said...

anon 6:28

Yeah yeah yeah :) :) :)

Christine Tripp said...

My father used to tell the same old stories, one of them included the b/w movie shorts that used to come before the main event at the movie theatre when he was a child. The hero (usally it was a Western, hop along Cassidy or some such) would be trapped 20' down in a well. The next scene would say, once out of the well:)
I hate including adults of any kind in my dummies. I want children to be able to see someone (other then an authority figure, be it animal, be it human) taking charge and figuring out solutions to their predicement. Kids now a days, are robbed of ever being able to solve their own dilemas, parents attach themselves to the child's hip, lest they be snached up by the "strangers" out there (thank you media)
We used to be on our own, we had to deal with a host of characters and we learned how to make our way in this world early. Now, there are only picture books.
Ed book illustration demands showing an adult at every turn, putting helmets on kids and keeping them too near the creeks edge. I really wonder sometimes, how long will it be until "they" stop trade books from showing a world that children can only imagine.
Some parent committee will undoubtedly put an end to it all.

Bob Schechter said...

I agree with the post completely, but I'm wondering whether it's universally adhered to in successful books. Only one possible "exception" springs to my mind, "Knuffle Bunny," which, if you don't love it, we exist in different universes. In "Knuffle Bunny," arguably, the main problem the child faces is that she lost her doll, and it's the father who ends up finding it. So the father solves the child's problem.

But, on the other hand:

(1) It's the child who throws a fit and makes the parent realize the doll is missing and go look for it; and

(2) Perhaps the hidden "problem" was that the child had never spoken, so when she speaks her first words at the end, it is a moving triumph for the child.

Still, it does in many ways almost seem as if the protagonist is the father, not the child, and we are certainly invited to see the "crisis" through the parents' point of view as they try to figure out what's eating the child.

Ultimately, the parents play a big role in solving the problem, but they do not, a la deus ex machina, simply swoop in at the end and wave a magic wand, but they are involved in the story from the beginning. I guess the thing to beware of isn't having deus or parents play a role in solving the problem, but bringing them in at the last minute to play a role for which the story laid no legitimate foundation.

Judy said...

anon 6:28--you answered my unasked question in my post above. I will share this post with my crit group. And thanks, EA, for a great post.

Sarah Miller said...

Yes ma'am.

Example: I'm a (mostly) grown up person, yet I always grumble a bit when Glinda the Witch of the North suddenly appears in the sky over the poppy field to wave her magic wand and free Dorothy & Co. from the Witch of the West's sleeping spell. They're asleep for all of 15 seconds before Glinda swoops in to save them. SO lame. Why even bother?

Sarah Garrigues said...

Anon--'But can the parent not be featured in the story to help teach their child this?'

Bob--'I guess the thing to beware of isn't having deus or parents play a role in solving the problem, but bringing them in at the last minute to play a role for which the story laid no legitimate foundation.'

I agree with you Bob. However, I would caution any writer planning to use an adult to solve a manuscript's conflict. It is a brier patch fraught with perils. Though one may successfully navigate it, the path is not for the faint of heart. Instead, one is much more likely to fall victim to the very mistake EA is warning against.

In general, preschoolers are captured by tales centering on strong, lively children that overcome their own conflict in surprising and inventive ways. It just makes for a better story.

Parents enjoy such stories, too. Not only do we want to be entertained during the reading ourselves, but, I for one, want my child to A) learn the value of independent, creative thought and, B) as Word said, be empowered through seeing other children conquer their dragons.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, EA.

none said...

Oy, yes, way back in the day the BBC were showing a whole load of old Flash Gordon and suchlike b&w shorts from the way back when days. And they had problems with a strike (I think) and ended up showing some episodes back to back. So in one episode, one of the heroes is shot in the back attempting to escape (that's the cliffhanger ending) and in the next one, coming seconds not a week later, he escapes without being shot.

Cheats! gah

Criss L. Cox said...

Parent ex machina is not only bad writing, it's bad parenting.

Yes, parents need to be there to make sure the kid doesn't stick his fingers in the electrical socket or fall into the well, but kids should be given a chance to figure it out themselves and find a way to solve their own problems. Too many parents swoop in at the slightest hint of a suggestion of a problem, teaching their children to be helpless and sit and wait for rescue. The least we can do is offer these children a strong, positive role model in books (if the parents won't let the kid become one in real life).

(Sorry about soapboxing off-topic. I'll move along now...)

Sarah Garrigues said...

Criss, you are spot on!

Leslie said...

Ann Finkelstein: I love that science cartoon! I quote it all the time -- no one knows what I'm doing, but I do. Need to save that one for the for-real desktop.

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