Archive for the ‘deus ex machina’ Tag

What if?   3 comments

Hi, Gang.

This week I thought we’d take a look at two of the most magical, and often forgotten, words in writing: What if.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up. I’m here today to tell you about two handy dandy little words that are a sure fire cure for writer’s block, plot holes, stuck scenes, wooden characters, contrived plotting, the common cold, upset stomach, and they make a heck of a furniture polish as well.

OK. So, I lied about the cold, upset stomach and furniture polish.

Snake Oil salesman pitch aside, asking this simple question can, and often does, do all those other things I mentioned. The problem is that far too often we forget to ask it. Particularly when it comes to our babies.

As I’ve noted before, all too often we want our stories written in stone. We want them to carry the same weight as the word of God. How dare those two measly little words mess with our genius? We’ve plotted scenes and scenarios that will shake the world of anyone who reads them.

What if… that egotistical hogwash is only true in one mind? Ours. Kind of limits the readership, don’t you think?

Now, it is true that a good story needs to evolve from living characters, and follow a conceivable set of circumstances designed to make the reader forget that they are reading a story. What if should never, ever interfere with that. As Steven King says, you must write the truth, even in fiction. But, there are times when What if can be a god send. And muses are notoriously lazy creatures.

All too often we will wrestle with a scene, or a plot hole, where we have written ourselves into a corner from which there seems no escape. We panic like a little girl with a spider down the back of our dress and contrive some of the worst malarkey we can come up with.

Yours truly knows because… I’m as guilty as anyone of doing exactly that.

More often than not, the answer to our dilemma is right in front of us. Hidden within the pages of our story. All we need to unlock it are those two little words… What if.

Let’s look at a few scenarios where What if can save our bacon. And maybe keep our sunny side up eggs from turning scrambled.

Our hardboiled detective has walked into a trap set by the mysterious villain. The vile miscreant has sent a red herring letter to the detective, and now his hired assassin has our hero right where he wants him. Tied to a chair with a throw away .38 special pressed to our hero’s forehead. Our protagonist is doomed. We could suddenly reveal that he was once the student of an escape artist. That he can untie the knots holding him, then jump up and knock the bad guy out with the martial arts he learned in China before the hitman can pull the trigger. (Yeah, right.) Or…

What if… the cute secretary of our detective, who we mentioned has a habit of going through her boss’s things way back in chapter one, finds the letter the bad guy’s used to lure him into a trap. What if she followed him, and just before the hired thug can blow our hero away, puts a slug right between the goon’s shoulder blades? Problem solved by an element already in the story, and odds are the reader never saw it coming. She unties our hero, and he is free to continue the investigation to its conclusion.

Next, we have a hero who has never failed once in the story. He never gets seriously harmed. And we get him out of trouble faster than he can get into it with a series of miraculous events, and saving graces we suddenly reveal just when they are needed most. Odds are, we’re boring our reader to death with a character who is about as deep as the puddle from a spilled canteen in Death Valley. And about as believable as a politician trying to get re-elected. Need I mention anything about Superman syndrome, or deus ex machina here? Ah! But…

What if… we let him fail a few times? What if we get him into trouble where he has nothing to rely on but himself? Suddenly we have a hero the reader can empathize with, feel scared for, and we can root for him because he’s no longer surrounded by an impenetrable wall of divine protection. He’s no longer safe. The reader already knows he’ll win in the end, but they also want to know he is fallible.

Lastly, and most terrifyingly, the computer screen stares blankly back at us, echoing the empty contents of our once fertile imaginations. The dreaded horror of a writer’s worst nightmare has come a’calling. Writer’s block. We can’t think of a single thing to write about, or even more gut-churning, our story is only half way finished, and the well has gone drier than the Sahara at high noon in midsummer. We is totally screwed. Or are we?

What if… we quit worrying about what to write and just picked the first thing that comes to mind? If you’ve read Steven King’s On Writing, you may have noticed that most of his stories have come about just because he saw something and started asking himself, What if. Carrie happened because he was helping the high school janitor in the girl’s room and noticed the feminine hygiene dispenser in there. Christine, when he and Tabitha stopped to get gas on the way back from Florida. Night Shift, when he saw a big rat while helping to clean out the storage room basement in a textile mill he worked at.

No difference. Stop worrying about how good it may, or may not be. Just pick something and start writing. What if… that cockroach crawling up the wall was part of a mutated hivemind creature? What if… The telephone ringing was a call to say you won the lottery, but it wasn’t the lottery you expected? What if… your barking dog suddenly began speaking English? And on, and on. Bye, bye writer’s block.

In fact, What if works better on writer’s block than it does in almost any other area of writing.

What if… this post is the biggest amount of BS I have ever concocted?

I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself. I try to avoid sounding like an authority, because I’m not. I’m just another hack trying to make my way into this business like everyone else. And I noticed a long time ago that speaking as an authority is an open invitation to cram your foot down your throat.

So, all of the above could very well be a steaming pile of horse hockey. But… What if… it isn’t?

Later, Gang. 😉