If you think Sharknado was bad, as in ‘deliberately-so-bad-it’s-good’, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Before Baywatch, before Knight Rider, there was… Star Crash. Spaghetti sci-fi made in Italy 22 milliseconds after Star Wars, directed by Luigi Cozzi and featuring The Hoff. I saw it on first release and again recently. It has a certain cult status, and is ‘good’ in that atrociously awful way. As it was Italian, it oozed visual style and had some wonderful nods to Ray Harryhausen. But the spaceship models had been put together from kit parts, including the sprue. The story didn’t hang together at all. The script was hilarious, and the soundtrack was dubbed from English into…er… English, sometimes without proper lip synch.
It also shared the major plot problem with Star Wars. The deus ex machina.
In Star Wars, the Death Star, via a very stupid design flaw, could be blown up by a single shot. (‘I’m going to turn off the targeting computer’. ‘No, Luke, no. Turn ON your targeting computer. It’s designed to hit small targets. That’s what it’s there for.’)
In Star Crash, one character had super-powers, never hinted at until needed to get the Good Guys out of a scrape. And again…and again…
Still, even the best authors succumb – look at Tolkien, for whom eagles repeatedly rescued everybody at the last moment. especially in The Lord of the Rings where to be consistent with what had happened to that point, Frodo and Sam should have died after fulfilling the quest. I suspect Tolkien’s decision to repeatedly portray a defiance of death, whatever it took, flowed from his Western Front experience – after all, the whole Mordor sequence reflected that aspect of his life. However, it led to such obvious questions as why nobody asked the eagles to fly Frodo to Mordor in the first place. Much easier.
Setting that aside, the deus ex machina happens mostly when the author paints their characters into a situation that’s impossible to escape from. Either intentionally or through ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow creation.
The Hemingway answer is ‘OK, then they die’. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I point to the last pages of Farewell To Arms.
But that doesn’t happen in deus ex machina stories.
The problem is that deus ex machina reduces the story to melodrama, killing suspension of disbelief stone dead. Why? Because deus ex machina moments don’t happen in the real world unless you’re deliberately funny.
What’s the answer? Planning. Sketching out plot and story; and if you must have your characters end up in an impossible position – well, it’s going to be on the last page, isn’t it. The trick is to ensure the plot is structured to that end – that it completes the arc, dramatically and in terms of character. As Hemingway, indeed, always did.
Hemingway. Tolkien. spaghetti sci-fi… Did I just post something linking them all? I did…didn’t I.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: Finishing up the NaNo tip series, more writing hints, and fun stuff about Interositers – watch this space.