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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » I think I may have a serious problem with my book

   
Author Topic: I think I may have a serious problem with my book
Nietge
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Just what the subject line sez....

See, in my book im writing, I'm afraid I have too many deus ex machina situations.

My original idea, is that the female protagonist (hereafter referred to as Protag) stumbles upon a futuristic artifact that is somehow able to 'grant wishes'. I should have known this would bring trouble.

Now, the power of this artifact isn't infinite:

1) You can't make 'forever'-type wishes with it, as in, 'I wish I can keep you forever and that you'll never be out of my sight.'

2) The power of the artifact to grant wishes is directly proportional to the connection between it and the wisher...if the artifact senses the wisher's intentions are benevolent, true, and will do the most good, then the chances of any particular wish granted will be demonstrably higher, as opposed to someone who's arguably 'selfish' and just snatched up the artifact for the 1st time, particularly if said artifact had already 'bonded' with someone else prior to this.

3) One way in which the artifact's power is held in check is....the wise wisher realizes that, if/when people start noticing that reality just starts inexplicably changing for the better in a huge way around the wisher, peeps start suspecting that something's afoot, and that she has magical powers towards wishgranting, and she is either hounded to death, feared and hunted, or the artifact is stolen from her. So she is hesitant to make wishes with it pell-mell. This tends to serve as a strong limitation towards artifact overuse, in Protag's case...at one point, she very nearly dies when her artifact was taken from her by an antagonist.

4) The artifact has hinted to Protag that its use can be abused, and in that instance, its powers will lessen, or else the artifact will seek out another keeper. This also tends to keep the Protag in check, and she is motivated to avoid making frivolous wishes.

5) the artifact promises to be a 'ticket to a future utopia'. So her actions with the artifact are being monitored...Protag is afraid that if she misuses the artifact, she'll be deemed not worthy for utopia, and she'll be crushed. (one stipulation here is, she absolutely CANNOT use the artifact to wish herself into this utopian place; her entry has to be earned.)

But still, even with all of these built-in limitations towards unsettling overpowering artifact usage, I think there's still some places where the plot depends on the artifact's intrinsic deus ex machina property. In those instances, Protag doesn't triumph over adversity through her own power, wit or skill or passion, but instead uses the artifact to wish her way through the crisis.

a) Protag's ship crash-lands on a planet (due to someone else using the artifact to wish that the ship would just go get f*cked). All the crew dies except her, since she used the artifact to wish she would survive the crash.

b) Afterwards, she's caught up in publicity surrounding her apparent miraculous survival from the crash. She uses the artifact to wish to escape the situation, and leave the planet safely. And she makes it, but barely. But readers might simply say to themselves through all this, hmm, well, I'm sure she'll make it, since she wished that she would be able to. So where's the tension? Hmm...

c) She makes it to somewhere else. To ensure her success in integrating with her new community, she uses the artifact repeatedly to make small wishes for other people she is intending to win over. But this soon backfires; she gets too popular, and jealous elements pursue her. She escapes from this situation, but without using her artifact.

d) While working her way to earn her place in utopia, she gets caught up leading a mechanized conflict. She uses the artifact *once* at the end, to secure victory. Though she regrets it, and feels guilty, since she's used it to kill people. She's afraid the utopians may bar her from entering utopia.

So what do I do? Did I screw myself by following this particular plotline? Help! I don't know why I didn't worry about this before....I guess I thought the power and novelty of the overall story would keep readers intrigued.,..


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MightyCow
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I think you need more limitations on the power of the artifact, or more reasons not to use it. There's a reason why stories with powerful things limit them strongly.

Think of the One Ring, and how its use turns the user evil and lets the Enemy know where you are.

Think of most wishing stories, which either have a set number of wishes, or the wishes cause consequences to the wisher.

You need to add value to each wish, either in the form of a price which must be paid, or by their scarcity. Maybe each wish kills someone in order to power it. Or a wish ages the wisher, or causes her to become uglier, or that she cannot make more than some unknown number of wishes or she will be denied utopia, but she doesn't know how many.

Not only does your MC need to feel that the wishes are not to be squandered, but the reader needs to trust that the MC won't use them to get out of every danger and solve every problem.


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Nietge
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Mighty Cow, I bow to your wisdom, and thats no lie. I feel much better now...I like the aging idea, as well as unpredicatability, especially since the artifact works through parallel universe theory. Each time the artifact is used, it *does* grant the wish in some form. But then some other random change is also unpredictably enacted, and I can make these random changes as dark and ominous as I want....fertile ground for the imagination. Maybe I'll use a combination of different simultaneous effects on each wish. With each wish granted, there's a negative effect on delayed reaction, giving a kind of false sense of security. It's like when people jump into committing a sin with both feet, and eyes closed, waiting for God to strike them down with a lightning bolt, and then relaxing when the bolt never comes.

The first wish she gets free, and its the one first wish everybody uses up the first time they handle the artifact...'What are you? Where do you come from?'...poof, wish granted, they find out its a wishing item that can lead them to utopia. No negative repurcussions, which may lead them to believe that the wishing artifact has veritably unlimited power with no drawbacks. This works to the utopians' advantage; they use the artifact to 'screen' potential aspirants for admission...if the artifact possessor goes mad with power, that counts as tallied black marks against them. I think this is a good setup, since a reader knowledgable about the extremely prickly, difficult use of deus ex machinas in fiction will go, "Holy Crikes, the author gave the character a seemingly infinitely powerful wishing item? There has to be ramifications to its use! What can it be? How is he going to handle this! It'll be a disaster!" So tension in the story will be raised; the reader will anxiously wait around to see what happens..."man, does she have the power now to wish the universe out of freekin existence, or what here?"

Artifact requires to be 'fully charged' before use. This prevents the possessor from making many wishes in quick succession.
Everytime girl uses artifact, things temporarily go *very trippy and weird* for a few seconds, like spacetime warps, hallucinations of 'oh no, i'm living in a big soap bubble' variety. Very unsettling, yet somehow seductive.
After the wishmaking, several things may eventually happen that CAN'T be reversed by wishing the effects away:
1) She ages anywhere from 5 to 10 years.
2) She develops some disorder, ranging from temporary paralysis, to blindness/deafness, to some change in her appearance (which is unpredictable..she may change into homecoming-queen,-Playmate status, and then has to fend off constant advances from slimy men, made all the more traumatic by the fact that she happens to be an actual rape victim)
2) She develops temporary psychosis. Suicidal tendencies.
3) A random change occurs in local reality that is dicey at best and catastrophic at worst. This increases universal entropy, which is noted and recorded by artifact; when a certain level of entropy is reached, something VERY grave happens. Perhaps permanent barring from utopia.

[Example of #3] Girl's ship is about to crash on Planet. Originally, they had intended to aerobrake/slingshot around it, just skimming the ship in the planet's troposphere. But because they just had to undertake a very long journey cross-system, the ship has *very little* reaction mass left to make any significant corrections to their approach. Ship winds up in the middle of a damn space battle that they can't avoid, and because of the collisions from incoming projectiles as well as small one-man ships (that I was going to call CORVAIRS but have since seen the folly of that), ship has been knocked off course in such a way that ship is now predestined to fall through the Planet's atmosphere at very high speed and crash-land, the ship breaking apart with no survivors (as they descend, they KNOW they are going to die, period. And actually, these events have been all set in motion by someone else who got a hold of the artifact and used it to 'wish' that the ship befall a dire fate, as I may have explained before.) She uses artifact to wish she will live through it. Yet this wish sets things in motion whereupon *many* people she's not directly connected to catastrophically die a *grisly* death as a result: as the girl's ship enters the Planet's atmosphere, a huge chunk of the ship breaks off the hull from the ghastly heat of re-entry and streaks away, hiting the clear dome of a crowded transport platform taking passengers down to the planet surface; dome shatters, people get sucked out into the microvaccuum that's all of 5 degrees Kelvin...very messy death. Dozens of bloated, frozen, bloody bodies plummeting down for 100s of kilometers. She gets blamed for it during the resulting controversy sparked over the fact that she survived the crash at all...since even if she theoretically was able to just walk away from the crash unscathed, she very well should have died from breathing air from the poisonous atmosphere while waiting to be rescued by emergency medical personnel. All the attention paid to her, the sensationalist press confrences, as well as the inquiry by her employer (which has the feel of a trial for the damned) are also negative effects of her wish to live. Okay, I think I like how this is going.

4) very small wishes entailing little energy/change have comparatively small effects ('man, i wish I had a sandwich,' 'It'd be nice to have my hair a slightly different color for a change' 'wishing item, um, can I have 75 cents for some ice cream?') This is important later on in the story, since she uses the artifact to make wishes for other people, to get in their good graces.

I feel soooo much better about this! Man I was so freakin out, I cant possibly tell you.

And now, tho....we have another, different problem with the book. Having to do with issues of the climax. Hehe. Tune in next post for details....

[This message has been edited by Nietge (edited June 14, 2006).]


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kings_falcon
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The greater the magic potential the greater the magic costs. Think about Steven King's Pet Cemetery , you can resurect the dead but. . . the person or animal is not the same as it was in life.

One thought on your plot line - how does someone wrestle the artifact away from your MC to make 2 wishes (the freebe wish about what it is and the destruction of the ship) without the MC knowing? Why does that same person leave the artifact with the MC knowing that bad things are about to happen to the ship?


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Christine
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What is the price of magic?

Once you can answer that with something real, I think you'll solve a lot of your own problems.


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wbriggs
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Another thing to think of (though others' suggestions are more to the point): this artifact is a *character*. I spoke to OSC about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and said, Why doesn't this deus ex machina thing bother me? Aslan solves everything -- the children just watch!

He said, that's because it isn't really their story. It's Aslan's.

What are the artifact's goals? What are its struggles? I think it may have some.

An option to try, anyway.


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Nietge
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quote:
One thought on your plot line - how does someone wrestle the artifact away from your MC to make 2 wishes (the freebe wish about what it is and the destruction of the ship) without the MC knowing? Why does that same person leave the artifact with the MC knowing that bad things are about to happen to the ship?

Okay...1st freebie wish ('What is this, anyway? Where does it comes from?') is made by MC. MC is on a small spaceship, with a small crew. She discusses artifact with her one good male Friend aboard ship (she found the artifact while she was with Friend, so he already knows about it. But they just didn't know what it did; it just looked like some baroque, curious object, perhaps a really weird souped-up handheld videogame thingie, like a PSP or a GameBoy.) In response to her freebie wish, she finds out what it is and what it does...an artifact, constructed by the Future Utopians, that can grant wishes *with penalties attached* and also serves to lead holder of the artifact to eventually join Utopia, if she's worthy. She tells Friend about this; Friend thinks she just went absolutely crazy, and tells Captain. Captain takes artifact, based on the rule that if any object is found on dead ships that they ransack for salvageable items (they are a salvaging vessel), it belongs to Captain. Neither Friend or MC tell Captain that the artifact can 'grant wishes'; Friend doesn't believe it can anyway. But then, MC tries to seduce Captain in his compartment to get artifact back. It succeeds; she retains possession of artifact.

Other things happen afterwards: MC and Friend make up (they were really good friends before, and Friend is actually in love with MC <although MC doesn't know this yet> )...and to prove MC wrong, Friend uses artifact to make small wish. Soon enough, this wish comes true. Friend is now a believer. A while later, he secretly uses the artifact during the ship's next junket, to make a more serious wish involving the MC which comes true...(you can probably just guess what he wishes for, can't you? He's hugely infatuated with MC, and so far <before his wishmaking with the artifact> it's unrequited. She seems to only want to be friends. Big Hint as to what his wish is.)

Meanwhile, all this is being surveilled by the ship's main Engineer. The Engineer has hidden cameras with audio pickups all over the ship, secretly installed, veritably invisible. No one knows about these camfeeds except Engineer. He originally installed them since he's the paranoid sort, unpopular, with self-acceptance issues, and suspected that he was being discussed in a negative way behind his back by the whole crew (they were). So by now, Engineer knows about artifact. He's definitely intrigued; after all, MC tried to get Captain in the sack for humpage/grindage just so she could hold onto it. MC had a wish granted, and so did Friend, with Friend's own little 'test wish'. So it must be powerful. He bides his time, and when the ship is docked at the home space station, Engineer waits until he has the ship to himself (easy enough, since all other crew are on station by this time, and he's also been given maintenance tasks by Captain), and then he hacks into the ship systems, accesses MC's compartment, and uses the artifact that the ship should go 'get itself f*cked'. He *originally* intended for the ship to encounter nastiness so that the ship will retire from service, and then he can join another ship; but at the same time, he wants the crew to suffer in a way that can't be immediately tracked to him. It doesn't occur to him that he will suffer as well. He then puts artifact back where he found it so no one suspects he had access to it. He's testing the theory that the artifact does what the MC says it can, but tests it in a way that he doesn't lose his position as Enge of the ship. If the artifact turns up missing, he'll be blamed, and he wants to avoid that for now. Of course, he's tempted to just take the artifact and make like a bandit, but he needs to see for himself that the artifact will grant *his* wishes. He's learned to be very careful about things; he's a hard-luck case, and is generally convinced the universe has it out for him.

And yes, ship does get it: crash landing on Planet, with only MC surviving. But Engineer also meets a rather nasty end himself, even before ship crash-landed. Got sucked out of the airlock.

Does this all make sense so far?

[This message has been edited by Nietge (edited June 14, 2006).]


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Pyre Dynasty
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First of all I'll say that I'm just scanning over the areas where you go into your plot, It's a bit too much information for me. Secondly in your first post Rule #2 is violated in plot point A. If the device decides how good the person using it is before granting the wish why would it grant the wish of the idiot in blowing the ship up?
Now as for rule two, I think it's your problem, Deus Ex Machina is about protecting the hero from consequences. If the device is picking and choosing what it grants by deciding if it's good or not then the device is responsible for that judgment. Let the girl feel the sting of her actions. (and what I'd do with the crashing of the ship: have her do some foolish wish like 'I'd like to breath the fresh air of a planet', not some suicidal punk.)

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Nietge
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Hmm...sorry if I wasn't clear on this...in theory, the artifact takes inito account the general level of morality/ethics/intent of wisher, but as long as wisher follows rules (i.e. no 'forever' wishes), wish is typically granted in 'some' form. I'll take another look at my above posts and see where I didn't make that clear.

Also: in what way did I give too much info?


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Pyre Dynasty
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It was in your first post rule 2, but no worries. Still I think this is complicating your story. Usually people examine their own ethics, and they don't need a device telling them who they are. They won't wish for something that is against their true morality.

As for the too much info, look at your post right before mine you basically have the story written there. (only it's summarized, but I still see it as a story and there are more than 13 lines there. This is just my opinion though, I'm not proclaiming law here. Usually we deal more with theory and a bit of specifics.


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Nietge
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Pyre, danke for the input. In fact, it was my extended discussions about where I was trying to go with all of this with a very knowledgeable RL friend of mine earlier today that's convinced me to rethink certain things...not necessarily about how wishing items should work, but about my sociopolitical milieu's backstory. So all this deconstruction and dissection's good for me...I'd rather it all happen beforehand than by an editor, who hacks away at my MS with a red permanent marker, writing UNPUBLISHABLE in the margin like an urban graffiti artist's signature tag on the side of a 7-Eleven.

Also, hmm, regarding your comment about the 13 lines...I didn't intend it as a 13-liner, just as a response to...huh. I ferget. Not sure why I went into all that. Maybe because I'd been carrying it in my head for so long, it forced its way out so it can breathe in the light of day and maybe get beat up a bit, accrue some mileage so to speak.

[This message has been edited by Nietge (edited June 16, 2006).]


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kings_falcon
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Neigte, I have to admit, I really liked this line in your last post:
quote:
. . . than by an editor, who hacks away at my MS with a red permanent marker, writing UNPUBLISHABLE in the margin like an urban graffiti artist's signature tag on the side of a 7-Eleven.

Seems like when you get the concept settled in your mind, the imagery will flow for you.

Keep playing with the concept because I think you have a great idea.


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CoriSCapnSkip
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I really love shows like "Quantum Leap" and "Early Edition" when the character has to make a choice of solving only one problem when there are two serious ones, or in solving one creates another, then at the end sometimes by making the choice to solve one problem, two are solved in an unexpected way.
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AndrewR
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You don't seem to have a problem with "deus ex machina," since the "machina" seems to only cause more problems than it solves. So I'm not sure why it's not working...

One question I have: what is your main character trying to accomplish? Sure, she wants to reach "utopia" eventually, but what is she trying to accomplish now? What is her immediate goal?

I think the goal of "gaining entrance to upotia" is a bit too vague to drive the character. There should be something a bit more compelling. Because, if she fails to earn entrance into utopia, what has she lost? She is no worse off than before she gained the device.

If she fails, what does she lose? And why is that so bad?


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Swimming Bird
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It sounds to me like what you have here is what Alfred Hitchcock called a Macguffin.

A thing of immense power that everyone fears and everyone wants. People can use it for good or people can use it for evil. As far as plot conventions go, this is a pretty standard one.

Maybe instead of limiting it's power, you could limit the weilders? For instance, the Force can only be used by Jedi/Sith.

Speaking of the force, would anyone say that's is a type of magic that has no cost of use?


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pantros
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metachloriats!

ok enough hijackint this thread...back to Neitge and his macguffin...

[This message has been edited by pantros (edited June 21, 2006).]


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AndrewR
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Did anyone else see the G.I. Joe cartoon episode (written by J. Michael Stravinski (sic), IIRC) where they were all after the McGuffin Device?
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AndrewR
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I just had a thought this morning about what a goal should be:

Ideally, the character's goal should be something that she is willing to sell her soul for. By soul, I don't just mean that invisible ghost, but that part of her that she values most. That ideal, that characteristic, that moral code that defines her, which she uses to define her, that without, she would be worthless in her own eyes. That one virtue which allows her to look in the mirror and say, "Yes, I am a worthwhile person. I am a human being."

What does she want that she would trade that away for?

That should be her goal.

Then, of course, require her soul to get it.


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trousercuit
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I'm pretty sure a MacGuffin has to be totally inert to the plot other than the fact that it exists.

They're not inherently bad, either - more like a time-honored tradition in certain types of storytelling.


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Survivor
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No, that would be a misleading statement. The Macguffin is the object that has the power to bring the plot to its "natural" resolutions. For instance, the Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings. If it is destroyed, the plot ends one way, if it is reclaimed by Sauron, the plot ends another way, if it is claimed by someone with the ability to use it to supplant Sauron, the plot ends in yet a third way.

The Ring does have other effects on the plot, it drives other conflicts and provides occasional secondary dangers and opportunities. But all of this is overshadowed by the fact that everything hinges on the ultimate fate of the Ring itself.

As for that bit about selling your character's soul...this is why I wouldn't be a good character in a story, I didn't have such a soul in the first place, and there's nothing I want badly enough to sell it if I had one (despite the fact that, if I had one, I probably wouldn't much want it).


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J
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I think Christine and wbriggs both hit it dead on. The conflict in your story is not how will Protag escape her immediate dangers--the readers know that she can and assume that she will. The conflict is whether her method of escape will damn her. It's a brilliant set-up, because every time she is using the artifact, she is increasing her level of risk in the real conflict of the book. As long as there is enough stuff directed towards maintaining that tension; maybe some mixed signals from old texts or the artifact itself regarding her progress; I don't think you have a deus ex machina problem.
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