Wednesday, December 21

Snow White and the Deus Ex Machina

Where last we left our heroine, she lay dead in a glass coffin. How could she be saved?
The contemporary version we’re using introduces a Prince Charming to kiss her back to life—a literary device called a “deus ex machina.”
The deus ex machina can trace its origins back to Greek playwrights. In ancient Greek theatre, actors playing gods or goddesses would be lifted onto the stage using a crane. Hence, the literal term “god from the machine.” There are still records of both Greek and Roman writers objecting to the concept.
Not because the playwright had employed a machine. The reason behind the machine was the problem. The characters in Greek stories (both plays and mythologies) would sometimes heap so much trouble on their own heads that they could not save themselves. The gods would have to intervene on a character’s behalf. (This intervention was often the reason for writing the play. Every year in ancient Athens, playwrights entered a competition by submitting three related plays, all dealing with one problem and its solution. The gods would sometimes hand-deliver the solution to the troubled characters to show the righteousness of a particular answer.) Of course, sometimes a writer just gets stuck.
Most writers—not to mention that most fearsome subset of critics, our readers—object to any use of a deus ex machina when telling a story. And why not? Introducing a new twist to the story is one thing. Cheating is another. Your fans don’t want you to cheat.
This doesn’t mean your characters don’t need to be saved sometimes. Or that introducing a new character (or any sort of device) is inappropriate. Both are very valid, when used wisely. The question is: how do you bring in a rescuer?
One modern retelling of Snow White is a surprisingly sweet movie called Just Like Heaven. When the Prince Charming archetype first meets the Snow White character, she’s already in the glass coffin. Metaphorically. (She appears as a spirit, haunting her old apartment that he’s currently renting.) After he takes a little while to “wake up” himself, he sets out upon a quest to find and save her. She cannot wake herself up, so she needs him to help her. It’s a neat twist on the Snow White story, told more from the Prince’s perspective than Snow White’s.
Of course, a writer has plenty of other ways to solve a cornered-character dilemma. Renew an old friendship. Plant a beanstalk. Drop a house on a witch. Hire a yodeling woodsman. Oh, wait--that's another story...

What about your story? What does your Snow White need to be saved from? Can she do it herself, or does she need help? Will her help come from someone she already knows, or someone who comes to her aid after she’s stuck?

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