A Question of Answers

9 Jan

ex machina

The last thing I wrote on this site was a review of the wonderful film Her.  And the last thing I wrote in that review was the following:

By making us ponder our own lives and our own romances, Her shows us that love is not actually the answer.

Love is a question. It always has been.

Does that make any sense? Maybe. But, then of course, I’ve never been an “answer man.” I’ve always preferred the long road to a solution than the arrival itself.

Writing is inherently about questions. All stories are at heart mysteries. Who is Ishmael? Why are the clocks striking thirteen? Why is 124 spiteful? Why is the night so very dark and stormy? (I’m gonna say, oh, global warming, maybe?) Great stories may not start with a literal question, but they do open our minds to wondering. Take the opening line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

How many questions are posed in that one simple sentence? We see within twenty-six words the arc of a man’s life, not to mention the tone for the rest of the novel. And something about ice. Something mysterious and awesome.

When we read stories we want to know how things will turn out for the characters. Will the lovers stay together? Will the detective solve the murder? Sometimes it’s not will they or won’t they, but how will they do it. Everyone knew that Harry Potter would face Voldemort sooner or later, and most expected a certain outcome, but the question remained: how will it come about?

The difference between great fiction and not great fiction lies in the difference between story and plot. Plot is merely the moving forward of factual events. Story is connection between plot and character. If Plot moves forward along the X-axis, than Character movies along the Y-axis, and where they meet is what we call Story. Almost all great stories are about characters acting and reacting to events. The plot attacks and the characters counterattack. Our heroes and heroines may start as passive beings besieged by outside elements, but they must become masters of their own fates, not beholden to the mercurial maneuverings of the world.

Bad fiction reduces problem solving to deus ex machina, and other absurd solutions that make readers shake their heads. Mediocre writers don’t let the characters prove their own mettle; instead, they force solutions upon the characters, taking away the roles and responsibilities that make them endearing and empathetic. Oh, look, someone found a will that fixes all the issues of who is supposed to receive Old Man Creever’s bountiful billions. Oh no, the bad guy is about to kill our heroes, but don’t worry, here comes the wizened old grandfatherly figure we all thought was dead two-hundred pages ago to save the day. Oh, hey, maybe the evil aliens who invaded the earth are allergic to water. WATER! WATER!! WATER!!! 

Deus ex machina literally means “God from the machine” and generally results from a writer painting himself into a corner, and metaphorically praying for celestial intervention. He has basically asked an unanswerable question, and has to introduce an element that has no right being in the story in order to tidy things up. Stories work primarily because of character, while a deus ex machina almost exclusively fixes a plot-related issue. Therefore, as long as the characters and story work well, we are willing to forgive a storyteller if his plotting is a little undercooked. (War of the Worlds has a very similar plot and use of deus ex machina to Signs, but War of the Worlds has held up considerably through the years, while Signs, um…WATER!!!!)

Dei ex machina hamper work in which there are no suitable answers. But what of stories in which the answers are easily attained, but whose attainment would negate the actual need for a story?


I was watching some cop show a few weeks ago. One of the detectives needed a certain piece of information, and needed it posthaste. Another detective found that piece of information and then drove to the first detective and told him about it. This particular show is set in contemporary America, and the first question that wandered through my mind was: um, why didn’t Cop #2 just call Cop #1 on his cell phone and tell him who the killer was? But no, that would be too easy. So he drove there. DROVE!

All televised procedurals need to draw themselves out for forty-two minutes by inserting obvious red herrings, false exits, and cleverer-than-thou criminals (cop shows), misdiagnosed patients (doctor shows), or unreliable witnesses (lawyer shows).

This is not restricted to the simple procedural. I am working on a story where a man’s wife mysteriously disappears. What makes it so strange is that none of the people who he thought knew her now remember her. He is the only one who remembers their time together. In writing his investigation into her disappearance, I realized that I was falling into the pitfalls of social media. Just look for her on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or any of the other platforms people use to share information about themselves.

I soon understood that finding her would be too easy. What I needed was the opposite of a deus ex machina; instead of a magic bullet answer, I required more questions for the plot to move forward. I needed him to get in his car and drive somewhere, to meander and wander for a few dozen extra pages.

There were three solutions that presented themselves to me:

1.         Set the story in a pre-Facebook era.

2.         Completely ignore social media, and hope the audience doesn’t go, “Um, Facebook her, Bro!”

3.         Have our hero not have a Facebook account.

The first answer was a cop-out. By admitting Defeat by Internet I was saying that no story could be told in an era with social media, cellphones, street corners filled with surveillance cameras, and information so easily accessible it makes us all look like mini-NSAs.

The second answer I couldn’t live with. It’s like having a man who is starving but who just happens to live two blocks away from a McDonalds. But pretending something doesn’t exist, when it clearly does is lazy and dishonest writing.

The third answer challenged me to figure out why he would not be on Facebook. It posed a question. The answer that presented itself was not the reason so many others have shied away from Facebook: zero interest in the labyrinthine world of social media/crushing candies. Rather, our hero was a man who hid from his past. That answer organically led to: why is he hiding from his past? Suddenly, a character I thought I knew inside-out was changing, evolving, becoming even more real. Stories present many questions for readers, but far more for the writers whose job it is to make that shit up.

As the world changes, and as information becomes a more easily obtainable commodity, telling a tale full of mystery becomes ever more challenging. No one has to search for change for a pay phone or go to the library to do research on some complex subject. Now we have iPhones and Wikipedia.  We live, as some have said, in the Information Age. And too much information is a dangerous thing.


Many have said that our contemporary technology – from texting to Facebook and Twitter, to smart phone games – is harming our ability to actually relate with real people. Maybe. I still profess that the fault lies not in our tech but in ourselves. If someone wishes to scroll through Facebook over dinner with the fam, fine, that’s a personal choice. But don’t blame the phone. It’s my choice to pick up the crack pipe. Well, the first time at least.

Everything modern and everything new is a challenge to us as people. When do we let our kids use iPads? Should I make a snide comment on someone’s Facebook status? Should I tweet that part of my body to my “unpaid” intern? And don’t get me started on Reply All.

But these technologies and the challenges they pose to writers of fiction are exactly what we need. How exactly am I supposed to write about characters tweeting? What kind of conversations happen when everyone is on their phone checking their online relationships? How can I use Google as an antagonistic weapon that stymies our hero, and not as a tool to further his quest?

Writers and artists are persnickety people. We tend to not like change, no matter how often we may be at the forefront of it. I know writers who still don’t have cell phones, let alone Facebook or Twitter accounts. I know one old writer who has not gone to the movies since they banned smoking in theaters. He only goes to bars that have backyards where you can smoke in them, and then only in the summer. Otherwise he holes up in his East Village studio and writes beautiful poetry about women he will never have.

Writing of course is not easy. It’s not supposed to be. If it were, we’d all be writing and selling gazillions of copies of Nazi Zombies From Outer Space. The challenge all writers face is not just creating something original, something new and not part of the current fad or trend in storytelling, but to also challenge our characters. They are our mirrors, the fictional creations who are avatars of our best and worst natures. Plot difficulties are a hassle, and we shouldn’t be so lazy as to dismiss them out of hand. Rather, we should use those difficulties as stumbling blocks for our characters to overcome. Or fail to overcome, depending on the charitableness of the particular storyteller.

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