Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Plot Devices: Deus Ex Machina or Chekhov's Gun?

Plot Devices:
Deus Ex Machina
Chekhov's Gun?

----Original Message----
"What are your thoughts on Good Deus Ex Machinas? I find them hard to pull off realistically in a plot." -- Puzzled Writer

A Deus Ex Machina is when the Hero doesn't find the solution to the story's problem. The solution is handed to them, or taken care of, by someone or something far more powerful.

From TV Tropes:
A Deus Ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The term is Latin for god out of the machine, and has its origins in Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.
Good Deus Ex Machina only happen when they've been set up to happen all along and were simply overlooked--which means they're not really Deus Ex Machina...

--They're actually a Chekhov's Gun.
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
Playwright Anton Chekhov (From S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.)

"Honestly, what kind of situation would require the use of a pair of fake arms and a remote-controlled wheelchair? Only, I imagine, a completely ludicrous one!"
Father Ted

The story opens with the sheriff saying that he's gonna cruise by the local huge creepy mansion later that night because the teenager that's watching over it is known for painting rude Graffiti. A house that big and that empty is clearly far too much of a temptation for a kid like that to resist.

meanwhile in the huge empty mansion, the radio and the TV blast out "Crazed Killer on the Loose in our area! Be on the look out...! News at Eleven."

Creeped out, the kid calls a few of his friends over to keep him company.

After a few forbidden cigarettes and a twelve-pack of beer, his friends start encouraging him to paint graffiti on one of the walls in the house.

Eventually, the kid gives in. "Why the hell not?" He goes to get his spray paint.

Right at that moment the monster strikes! It chases the troubled teen though the house and kills off his friends one by one. Blood! Guts! Mayhem! Screaming...!

Finally, the monster corners the kid on the roof with no place else to go.

Out of nowhere, a police helicopter shows up to rescue the kid 
-- Deus Ex Machina? 
The copter door swings open and it's the sheriff. He wasn't just keeping an eye on the kid, he was also watching out for the crazed killer that had been all over the news for days. 
-- NOT a Deus Ex Machina -- a Chekhov's Gun! The cop showing up was set to happen from the beginning. However, this works even better if... 
Before the kid can get up on the copter the monster finds a way to drag the helicopter down from the sky.

With the judicious use of a can of spray paint and a lighter, the monster's eyeballs are fried goo. The kid makes his escape straight into the REST of the cops heading up the road.

The cops shoot down the crazed killer and the kid goes on National Television saying how Graffiti saved his life.

The End~~~~~~~~~~~~~
An example of a Chekhov's Gun that LOOKS like a Deus Ex Machina can be found in the closing scene to the game Final Fantasy VII where the heroes tried everything to save the world, but failed. Suddenly, the world saved itself using the Life-stream--the power that had been the focus of the story's main problem since the story's opening. This Deus Ex Machina power had been there from the very beginning, yet had been overlooked making it in fact, a Chekhov's Gun.

However, an even better ending came in the sequel game Dirge of Cerberus, where one of the least understood characters in the Final Fantasy VII cast proved to have had a monumental power sleeping inside him all along--that was again, overlooked.

Getting it on Paper...
If you really want to use a Chekhov's Gun, it helps to think of a story as a Circle. It should End where it Began with the main problem at the beginning of the story being the last problem solved. This means you need to have the Solution to that main problem present at the beginning of the story--preferably in the opening scene, but discounted, or not thought of as anything special.

By the way, most Fairy Tales and Fables tend to have a Circular plot pattern -- ending where they began.


Friday, December 04, 2009

Plotting: The Murphy's Law Method

The Murphy's Law Method
"What Can go Wrong SHOULD go Wrong."

If you want an easy way to plot out a story that your readers can't guess the end to by the fourth chapter, then THIS is the method for you!

You begin with a character and something they desire.
 -- They go after their desire which immediately sparks complications which become a Problem that your character has to solve.
 -- Once the character applies their chosen Solution to their Problem, Murphy's Law kicks in. The Solution triggers yet another problem.

This pattern continues--Problem > Solution > Problem--so on, and so forth until All the problems are solved and your character either reaches their goal, achieves an even better one, or dies.

This method is extremely effective when plotting out Adventure stories of any kind. In fact, Van Helsing, National Treasure, Inkheart, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, the James Bond movies, most RP video games, and almost all Horror stories and films follow this pattern.

Murphy's Law Adventures
Basically, the story begins with a Goal. Our hero goes after said goal which spawns a problem. Once our hero figures out a solution and gains the goal, the worst possible thing (or person) happens to snatch that victory right out of their hands.

This forces our hero to figure out a new solution to regain their goal, and uncovers yet another problem--a worse problem. They find a solution to that problem and achieve said goal only to have Murphy's Law strike again to snatch their victory away, plus present them with a new and even worse problem to solve.

Rinse and Repeat until you reach The End. 

This is also known as "Impressive Failure".
 -- From: Screenwriting Column 08 by Terry Rossio
"Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is perhaps the greatest action hero in the history of the movies, and in his debut film he flat-out fails from beginning to end.

• He loses the golden idol.
• Marian is kidnapped and he's unable to rescue her.
• He finds the Ark, but it is immediately taken.
• His bluff to destroy the Ark is called, and he gets recaptured.
• He can't even look upon the Ark when it is opened.
• And the government ends up with his long sought-after and much suffered-for prize.

This guy's an action hero?

Yup, because he fails so damn impressively from start to finish. Indy fails so well in fact, the audience is impressed as hell, and hardly aware of the fact that he's failing. The defeats are just setbacks that create more opportunities for heroism. As an added benefit, Indy wins the audience's sympathy -- the poor guy's trying so hard, you can't help but root for him."

In the Murphy's Law method, Impressive Failure happens over and over until the very end of the story where our hero is completely out of solutions--except the one thing they really, really don't want to do. This one last thing solves everything--usually with a casualty--and the story ends on an ironic note.

Sound like fun?

Murphy's Law Romance
The Murphy's Law Method is also surprisingly effective when plotting out an Angsty Romance!

Example: Romeo & Juliet
Set Up: Once upon a time, a boy and girl fell in love.
The Goal: Each other.

Problem: Their parents hated each other, and none of their friends liked the others' friends. No one approved--in fact, it was forbidden for them to see each other. (Insert Lover's Angst.)

Solution: Secret marriage.

Next Problem: Their relationship is discovered and they are forcibly separated. (Insert Separation Angst.)

Solution: They arrange to meet in secret to run away together.

Next Problem: One lover is late to the meeting. (Insert Abandonment Angst.)

Solution: A sympathetic friend (who happens to be the priest that married them,) is waiting with the other lover (the one that isn't late.) Said friend decides to go out and discover whether or not the late lover is going to show up.

Next Problem: The waiting lover is "marked for death" should they be found within the city limits, (which they are.) Because the friend is out hunting down the late lover, this "marked" lover is left alone and unprotected. (Insert Unfairness Angst.)

Solution: A potion that fakes death. If they were dead, no one would bother them.

Next Problem: The late lover misses the searching friend and arrives alone to find their beloved out cold from the potion. They immediately think that their beloved has committed suicide because they were late. (Insert "It's all my fault" Angst.)

Solution: They decide to join their lover in death -- by committing suicide.

Next Problem: The lover that was out cold wakes up to find their beloved draped across them Dead. (Insert more "It's all my fault" Angst.)

Solution: They commit suicide too.

Conclusion: The parents find the dead kids. (Insert Even MORE "It's all my fault" Angst.) They decide to stop the feud between their families

The End

Writing Murphy's Law
The key to using this method effectively is ONE Point of View, normally the Hero's. This keeps the reader firmly in the driver's seat and focused on what the Hero is doing. It also allows surprises to pop-up and Suspense to build. "Is he gonna get it this time?"

If the reader has been in the Villain's head, for example, and already knows what's going to happen next--where's the Surprise?

Memorize this:
Suspense can only happen when the Reader
DOESN'T know what will happen next.

So don't tell them by head-hopping, damn it!

The only real problem that one could face when using this method is the possibility of the author painting themselves into a corner by creating a problem the character Can't solve. This often triggers the heinous Deus Ex Machina--when something or someone comes out of nowhere to save the hero's butt.

The solution of course, is to make a LIST of the problems and their solutions--and STICK TO IT, unless of course, you find a better solution. Just remember to make a better problem to go with it!


Morgan Hawke

Is your Special Character TOO Special?

Is your Special Character

Are you indulging in a few too many "special traits"? Is your story really an excuse to show off your Super Special Character? Is your story really an excuse to BE a Super Special Character?

Are you committing a MARY-SUE/GARY STUE?!
Dead give-away: Your favorite character is YOU only BETTER!

Who is Mary Sue/Gary Stue?

According to
“Mary Sue / Gary Stue is any original or deeply altered character who represents a slice of their creator's own ego; they are treasured by their creator but only rarely by anyone else. A Mary Sue/Gary Stue is a primadonna (usually, but not always badly-written,) who saps life and realism out of every other character around, taking over the plot and bending canon to serve their selfish purposes.”
-- For more details:

The Mary Sue/Gary Stue “Self-Insertion” in Fan-fiction:
According to
“The Mary Sue [Gary Stue], as someone said, is the highest form of fannish devotion to a series. You like it so much you want to come play in it yourself. Most fan writers are content to do this by sneaking in under cover of one of the canon characters.

Slipping on my Hakkai mask, I jump in the jeep and set out for the west with Sanzou and the guyz, pretending all along that it's Hakkai telling the story I'm writing and not me at all.

Havers. *Of course* it's me and not Hakkai…”
-- For more details:····ndex.htm

Too many Special traits spoil the Character
While not every "super-special!!!" character is actually a Mary-Sue/Gary Stue, they fall under the same rules because when one makes a "larger than life" character, they tend to be unbalanced and quite frankly, no fun to read. Think Superman without Kryptonite. When you have a character that never loses, you might as well write:

• Hero meets bad-guy.
• They fight.
• Hero wins. The end.

Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the suffering?

This is also known as Godmoding.

According to Burning Dumpster:
Godmoding: “Take the Mary Poppins slogan "Practically Perfect in Every Way" and remove the 'practically'. They're perfect little characters with no real flaws that can do whatever the hell they like. No one can contradict them or oppose them because they're always right. In fan-fiction, they're boring. In PBEM, they are a royal pain in the ass. Also known as an ‘avatar’.”
-- For more details:

How many ‘special’ traits does YOUR pet character have?
Let’s find out!

Take this test:····sue.html

Despite all this, God-mode Mary Sue/Gary Stue characters AREN’T necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Mary Sue/Gary Stue is an excellent way for a beginning writer to experiment with story-telling. In fact, it’s the most common way a writer begins writing anything at all.

Key word: Begin -- not End.

God-mode, Mary Sue/Gary Stue (especially under the thin veneer of a favorite Manga character) only becomes a problem when one posts them on the Fan-Fiction sites where Readers can see them and Flame them for being too unbelievably perfect to identify with and/or too Out of Character (OOC).

So what do you do to keep your characters from falling into the black hole of Mary Sue/Gary Stue-ism?

Exercise your experience - but don’t fall in!
A Story is nothing without good strong characters, but if you can’t use yourself, how do you write about the feelings of someone else? You Empathize -- you recall how you felt under similar circumstances -- but you don’t BECOME that character.


The Lost Boys:
Michael is watching the girl of his dreams climb onto another guy’s motorcycle. She doesn't look happy about it, but she does it anyway.

The other guy, David turns to Michael and invites him to come along.

Michel’s motorcycle is only a dirt bike. There’s no way in hell his bike can surpass David’s.

David smiles. "You don't have to beat me. You just have to keep up."
What is Michael feeling through all this?

The Matrix:
Neo has just received a Fed Ex package with a cell phone in it. He's looking at it when it starts to ring in his hand. He answers it.

"Neo, this is Morpheus. You have to get out of there. Now."
What is Neo feeling through all this?

Michael has had one hell of a day. There was a shooting at the train station, and crap at his hospital job, and then when he goes home, he finds a really beautiful and incredibly strong girl who immediately tries to strangle him in his apartment.

Moments later, he's running for his life from things galloping after him on the walls and ceiling. He escapes into an elevator and the door closes. Then it opens.

A guy he's never seen before in his life smiles and says: "Hello Michael." Suddenly, bullets rip into the guy right in front of him. The guy falls forward onto Michel and bites him.

Out of nowhere, the strong girl comes back and drags the weird guy off of him.

The weird guy bursts into laughter.
What is Michael feeling through all this?

Making the Characters work WITH the Plot.

There are roughly three essential characters in every story:

• A Protagonist with character traits designed to work AGAINST the plot.
• A Sidekick to add complications and make matters worse.
• A Villain that the hero absolutely Cannot beat when the hero first enters the fray.

The hero and the villain should change and develop as the story progresses to allow the hero a toe-hold chance, and no more, to win. The rest of the cast may or may not have personal growth, but the hero and the villain must. This is where dramatic tension is generated.

Changing takes suffering. Both the hero and the villain should suffer emotionally and physically to allow for their personal changes. Think about how hard it is for YOU to change your mind about something important to you. That's the level of suffering you need.

If this seems a little formulaic, remember, it’s not what you HAVE it’s what you DO with it.

Let’s look at two different movies:

The Matrix -- Urban Fantasy
A Protagonist with character traits designed to work AGAINST the plot.
Neo is a quiet computer hacker. He deals in facts, not fantasy. He's not an action kind of guy, but everyone thinks he's supposed to save the world. He thinks they're wrong.

A sidekick to add complications and make matters worse.
Both Morpheus and Trinity believe in him, to the point that they keep risking their lives so he has to keep saving them.

A Villain that the hero absolutely Cannot beat when the hero first enters the fray.
The Matrix is a sentient mega-verse. Mr. Smith is a replicating Virus. Both are bound and determined to keep all of humanity deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s being done to them.

The Lost Boys – Vampire
A Protagonist with character traits designed to work AGAINST the plot.
Michael desperately wants to fit in with a motorcycle gang that rules the entire town because he likes the girl that hangs with them. Michael does not believe in Vampires.

• A sidekick to add complications and make matters worse.
Michael has a nosy younger brother who is terrified of vampires.

• A Villain that the hero absolutely Cannot beat when the hero first enters the fray.
Michael absolutely positively cannot defeat an entire gang of Vampires.

In Conclusion…
Make your Characters part of your story, not the Excuse for your story. Give them pain, give them heartache, and make them face their fears. Anything less cheats the reader out of some good healthy angst!


Morgan Hawke

Yaoi Writers: Are your Male characters MASCULINE?

Yaoi Writers:
Are Your Male Characters MASCULINE?
Is your favorite Yaoi character YOU as a guy -- only BETTER?
Are you committing a MARY-SUE/Gary Stu?

According to
The Mary Sue ... is the highest form of fannish devotion to a series. You like it so much you want to come play in it yourself. Most fan writers are content to do this by sneaking in under cover of one of the canon characters.

Slipping on my Hakkai mask, I jump in the jeep and set out for the west with Sanzou and the guyz, pretending all along that it's Hakkai telling the story I'm writing and not me at all
Except for one BIG problem...
-- Hakkai shows Female Behavior -- not Male.

A common error that every beginning Female writer makes is that they assume that their male character will feel and react in the same way they would. They show them talking, thinking and behaving not as guys, but as they would react if facing the same situation -- as females.

Unfortunately, while the female writer may miss this, their Readers WON'T -- especially if those readers are Guys.

When a female writer’s male characters think, act, and talk in a feminine way, her audience will get annoyed - even if they don’t understand why. The same is true if a male writer’s female characters don’t think or act or talk like real women. (And I know you've all seen examples of that!)

So how do you keep this from happening to Your characters?

The Check-List:
A convincing masculine character WILL:

Be direct
Be issue-oriented
Be analytical
Act casual even in serious discussions
Make statements
Use short sentences
State his preferences clearly
Talk about concrete issues
Verbalize only things that he sees as important
Give advice
Ask specific questions
Choose to sit at angles from the person he’s talking to

A convincing masculine character will NOT:

Ask lots of questions
Ask leading questions
Turn statements into questions
Invite a "just talk” situation
Speak in euphemisms
Use understatement
Downplay his ideas
Let his sentences trail off
Make agreeing noises
Volunteer his reasons
Hold eye contact for significant periods
Say “I’m sorry” unless he really means it
Tell stories about his failings
Use personal anecdote to make a point, especially in a professional setting
Get bogged down in introspection or self-doubt
Ask for help, especially with emotional issues
Volunteer information about his feelings
Ask about others’ feelings
Ask for validation

Now that you have your answers, here are the reasons behind them.

The REAL differences between Males & Females:

Men see life in competitive terms.
Women see it in cooperative terms.
-- Men see compliance (going along with what someone else wants) as submission; women see compliance (going along with what someone else wants) as cooperation.

Men focus on action.
Women focus on emotion.
-- Men don’t like to ‘just talk.’ They see conversation as a way to relay information, to show independence, and to illustrate status. Their conversations tend to be brief, episodic, and focused on concrete issues and events.

Men make decisions.
Women form a consensus.
-- Men state what they want; women make their preferences known and often add reasons for their requests in an attempt to convince the other party. Men don’t volunteer reasons, and when asked for reasons, they often feel they’re being challenged or checked up on. They feel as if the other party doesn’t trust them.

Men try to solve problems.
Women talk about problems.
-- Women listen to other people in order to give support. Men listen to other people in order to give advice.

Men are direct.
Women are indirect.
-- Men tend to make statements; women make suggestions. Women use understatement and speak in euphemisms; men are blunt.

Men’s actions and body language often do NOT reflect their feelings.
Women’s usually do.
-- Men are direct when talking about concrete things, but indirect in talking about emotional issues. This is because being affected by one’s emotions is not considered masculine. When forced to discuss emotions, men may attempt to distance themselves by avoiding eye contact, slouching, or turning away.

Men see themselves as protectors of women.
Men see Women
as protectors of children.
-- When a man is protective toward a woman, it is to show that he feels responsible for her safety; he’s taking care of her. When a woman is protective toward a man, it is to show that she cares about him. Unfortunately, he’s likely to interpret a protective act as condescending, as though he’s a child.

Men see eye contact as challenge.
Women see eye contact as concern.
-- Women sit closer and look at people directly while talking to them, especially about serious subjects. Men sit at angles to each other and look at other things, almost never directly into each other’s faces.

Men interrupt.
Women wait their turn.
-- Men interrupt in order to change the subject or to express their opinion; women interrupt with supporting noises or to avert conflict.

Men ask questions to get information.
Women ask questions to further the conversation.
-- Men see talk as information; women see talk as interaction. Women are more likely to make a telephone call just to talk; men make a telephone call to accomplish a specific purpose.

Women make agreeing noises when they’re listening.
Men listen in silence.
-- “I know”, “I understand”, “Really?”, “Yes,”, “Uh-huh” are all feminine mannerisms. Women nod and smile and make agreeing noises to show that they’re listening and to invite further conversation, not necessarily to indicate agreement. Men don’t nod or smile or make agreeing noises unless they actually agree.

Men avoid discussion of emotional information.
Women invite it.
-- Women express emotion relatively easily, even in public - - except for anger, which they tend to repress at all times. Men generally do not express any emotion other than anger in public.

----- Original Message -----
"Men have no less need to deal with emotions just because they're not allowed to admit they exist, and so men have interactions that are ostensibly about something else but really about that. A casual observer won't notice, and even an insightful observer would not notice because that singular interaction/conversation ... will appear as one of the other allowed competitive (safe) interactions. But viewed in the wider context of how those two men interact previously and after ... the interaction will seem off-topic, unusual, almost as if one (or both) men isn't the same person as in the other encounters."
-- Literary Guy

Men figure out how they feel - by thinking about it.
Women figure out how they feel - by talking about it.
-- Women are more likely to sit down and think through the whole history of a problem. Men are more action oriented, thinking what he’s going to do about the problem.

Men say “I apologize.”
Women say “I’m sorry.”
-- “I’m sorry” implies taking responsibility, while “I apologize” indicates regret that there’s a problem without necessarily accepting responsibility for causing it.

Men are more approving of their self image.
Women are more critical.
-- Men tend to boast publicly; women to boast privately, if at all. Women tell stories about their failures; men tell stories that make them look good.

Women are more specific with information.
Men generalize.
-- She'll tell you a dress is robin’s egg or teal or aqua or periwinkle. He'll say it’s blue.

Women are most comfortable talking when they feel safe and close.
Men are most comfortable talking when they need to establish and maintain status.
-- She tells him everything. He tells her what is important to him.

Men are more able to compartmentalize and separate issues.
Women are more likely to let feelings in one area spill over into another area.
-- A man can go from angry to amorous much faster and more believably than a woman. An argument or a bad day will be more difficult for a woman to set aside when getting into bed.

Men hide secrets to maintain status.
Women share secrets to build rapport.
-- Women see talking to outsiders about their relationships as part of friendship. Men see talking to outsiders about their relationships as disloyalty.

Men see challenge as constructive.
Women see challenge as destructive.
-- Women see disagreement as threatening; men do not. Women find raised voices and arguments upsetting; men see the ability to fight as a sign of intimacy, because only those who are intimately involved with each other argue.

Men react literally--word for word--to the message.
Women interpret the meaning.
-- Both men and women have a tendency not to answer the question that was actually asked, but they have different justifications for doing so. Men see it as a protective measure to get to the real point of the question. Women intend it as a helpful and caring measure to get to the real point of his question.

In Conclusion...
Before anyone starts screaming about it being sexist--it IS. I'm showing the differences between the genders, not their similarities. Also, this is not a check list YOU should compare yourself to! This is merely a list of Traits for the Adult Male ARCHETYPE intended for Fictional Characters NOT real people. NO man or woman acts 100% this way. Teen-aged boys in particular are are considerably more emotional -- until they learn to control it.

Consider this a basic model to build upon. What you add to that base -- motives, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes -- is what will make your characters unique.


DISCLAIMER: As with all advice, take what you can use and throw out the rest. As a multi-published author, I have been taught some fairly rigid rules on what is publishable and what is not. If my rather straight-laced (and occasionally snotty,) advice does not suit your creative style, by all means, IGNORE IT.

"Men are from Mars Women are from Venus" - by John Gray, Ph.D
"Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives" - James Dobson
"Men, Women and Sex" - Margaret Paul, Ph.D
"Yes, Biologically Speaking, Sex Does Matter" - Karen Young Kreeger
"Gender Differences Are Real" - Frank York

~ * ~