Saturday, 20 January 2018

Deus Ex Machina

Today’s topic is the Deus Ex Machina, the ‘God out of the Machine,’ which is a writer’s tool you should use sparsely, if at all. Because it’s actually outright cheating, you see. You’ve written yourself into a corner and instead of going over twelve chapters and changing the way the story went, you just bring up some kind of ‘out of jail free’ card and let the heroes get away with it.

One of the most definite versions of the Deus Ex Machina I even encountered is actually perpetrated by God himself in the Goethe version of the tale of Faust. Now, usually, Faust is your standard guy who made a deal with the devil and, in most versions, the deal goes something like this: the devil serves him for a certain number of years (usually ten or twenty), then the devil gets his soul. There’s lots of those stories in folklore, not just about Faust.
Goethe wanted to make a different point, a point about how humans should always strive for knowledge, and so he fiddled with the story. He gave it a prelude in heaven, where Mephisto and God made a bet to see whether or not Mephisto could tempt Faust, an avid scholar, to stop striving for knowledge and just live a nice life.
Mephisto set to work, using Faust’s frustration about not being able to understand certain things, and offered him a deal, which was similar to the regular one: He’d serve Faust in any way, give him access to whatever he wanted, but once Faust was content with his life, his soul would fall to Mephisto. Faust agreed to the deal and they started it off by making the old scholar young again (because what fun is living life to its fullest when you’re old and cranky?). Soon afterwards, Faust spotted Gretchen, a very pretty and rather opinionated young woman whom he wanted, so Mephisto had to organize everything. But, as is to be expected when you make a devil arrange your love life, things went awry, Gretchen’s brother came home at the wrong time, Faust had to kill him and to flee. Gretchen stayed behind, her mother died of the shock over her son’s death, and Gretchen was pregnant (which means Faust got what he wanted). Once Faust learned about Gretchen’s fate (she killed her newborn, because it seemed the only way out of her situation, and was to be executed as a child murderess), he had Mephisto take him to the prison and offered to free her, but Gretchen preferred to accept her fate and her soul was saved by God (who might already have been hatching his plan or just have been a little more forgiving than those who interpret his word on earth). This is where the first part of Goethe’s play ends.
There’s a second part, though, where the story is finished. Due to being a lot more complicated, the second part is rarely performed these days, but let’s talk about the absolute end. After a long trip through human history, Faust has his own realm, Helen of Troy for his companion, and, finally, utters the words Mephisto has been working hard for: he wants things to stay the way they are. Because, had Faust really stood by his principles and never wavered, they’d still be at it today and the play would never have ended. So, good news for Mephisto? Nope, because now God shows he’s not playing fair. As Mephisto is about to snatch Faust’s soul, which is now his by right, Gretchen appears and pulls Faust off to heaven. Mephisto has done all the work, but he doesn’t get his payment. Poor devil.
And this last step is actually the Deus Ex Machina. Goethe had written himself in a corner over the many years it took him to compose the full story (almost sixty from first idea to finished second play). He’d already had a full play out, so he couldn’t just rewrite half of it. So he cheated and made Gretchen - who, if we’re honest, had no reason whatsoever to save Faust - pull his price from right under Mephisto’s nose. He didn’t want to see Faust punished, as he should have been. By rights (and traditions), Faust’s story shouldn’t have had a happy ending. Deals with the devil don’t have a happy ending normally. Even if people get away from hell, they usually get some kind of curse put on them.

The Deus Ex Machina can also take the shape of a character suddenly coming to the hero’s help without good reason, an enemy suddenly being weakened (again without good reason), or information turning up out of nowhere to help the hero win. The old Greeks already knew about that trick and they, unlike us modern people, had a lot of gods, so in their stories, it’s less unlikely for one of them might take an interest and help a mortal for some reason. Sometimes just in spite of another god or because they were bored. Greek gods were larger-than-life humans, after all. Modern religion doesn’t afford us that much logic with this trope, so it has become a problematic one. It simply isn’t logical, even within the logic of the story.

If you really, really, really have no way out of a corner you’ve written yourself into, you might consider using a Deus Ex Machina, but I recommend always trying to find another way out first. Rewrite, if necessary. Leave the God in the Machine.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Working With A Formula

I’m currently reading quite a bit of Jules de Grandin, which means pulp at its finest. With the other pieces of pulp I read recently (see reviews for Secret Agent X, Jim Anthony, and The Black Bat … oops, spoiler, sweetie), I’ve also started to see the patterns in those stories and especially Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories work after the same pattern, with some variations, every time. Is it bad to work with a formula of some kind?

First and foremost, every story follows a certain formula. You have an introduction (might be missing in a short story), you have a change, you build up tension through twists and turns, you have a black moment (when everything seems hopeless), then you have the big confrontation, and afterwards you tidy up (might also be missing in a short story). This is how storytelling works. This is the sequence we expect when we pick up a book, turn on the TV, or sit down in a movie theatre. So every writer who writes fictional works tends to work of a formula, anyway.

If, however, you want to produce work quickly (as Seabury Quinn did), you will keep much closer to a formula. Edgar Wallace did the same. The art is not to stray from a formula working for you, but to make sure to have enough variations and use the formula well. Essentially, every genre can be summarized in a formula of sorts and the closer you keep to that, the more the story will look like the genre in question. Yet, people who read a lot of stories from on genre will also quickly recognize such a formula, if it’s in use. If you keep very closely to it, they will realize it and know what to expect. You can fool with that, of course, by playing with the tropes in your story, by playing with the characters, by adding a few more unusual twists and turns.

It sounds boring to keep to a formula and you might produce something much more recognizable without, but if you need to produce something over and over again (as the pulp writers of old and the new ones), having a formula to apply to your work is very helpful. It helps you minimize the time you need to plot a story and the time you need to write it. You can easily produce a full novella of 20,000 to 30,000 words in a month that way (even faster, if it flows well). Over time, if you’re using a formula often, you will grow so accustomed to it and know it so well you can use it without having to think about it much.

Personally, as an unorganized writer, I can’t rely on formulas too much, since my stories are not finished when I start the writing process, but even I find them helpful to a certain degree, because they give me an idea where to go next while I’m writing. I just can’t use it to produce a story without having to wait for my own ideas to catch up with me.

What you should be weary of is coupling a formula with too many stereotypes. You might not find the time to flesh out every character for a new story, if you’re producing them quickly, but you should at least make sure the main characters are characters and not just the cardboard cut-outs known as stereotypes. A story relies on the characters as much as on what happens. In fact, usually the characters are really driving the story, because their strengths and weaknesses, their past, present, and future, their acquaintances make something happen. Therefore, stereotypes won’t get you as far as ‘real’ characters who have all of the above.

Tropes are also an interesting topic, especially if you’re trying to put a story together quickly. Tropes are, however, not only known to you as a writer, readers and other audiences who are familiar with the genre will also recognizes tropes which are used often. The art is not to eschew them or write them, but to write them well, to spin them in a different direction, to vary them enough so the reader can’t be too sure what to expect. Or to make them think they know where things are going and then to surprise them - but it needs to be done well. You can’t go too far when twisting and changing tropes.

But back to the formulas as a such. Looking down on writers who use them, especially when producing a lot of material, is looking not far enough. Yes, they will probably never write something unique and their stories might not stand the test of time, but the same goes for a lot of stories not written with a formula in mind. Few books have a staying power and few stories age well. Sometimes, it’s not the writing which makes them powerful (“Dracula” was written in a diary/file style which was dead already when Stoker started work on his book). Sometimes, it’s only very popular for a short time, only to disappear completely afterwards. Sometimes, it takes a while before people start to get interested.
As a writer, you should aim for the thing which all stories are meant to do: entertain the reader. Because that is the first and foremost thing any piece of fiction is meant for. Yes, you can experiment. Yes, you can try to leave the regular paths and see where it leads you. Yes, you can cross two or even more genres and work out something new. Yes, you can add a social comment. But first and foremost, your story should entertain the reader.

And that is where the formulas do their work well. They are creating an interesting story to write, a story which will have twists and turns, which will satisfy the reader with its end. And that is what a story should do, so do not look down on formulas. You don’t have to use them, but at the same time, you shouldn’t think them worthless or cheap. They have their uses.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

What To Avoid In Dialogue

Dialogue is an important part of any story. You will rarely find one where the main character isn’t at some point speaking to someone else (themselves, if nobody else is around). There are, however, some things which you might want to avoid in writing dialogues. Here’s a little list.

1. Accents or dialects

If you read older books, you might often find the author using a reproduction of what a specific dialect or accent would look like when written down (Doyle did that now and then, same goes for Stoker or Seabury Quinn). I think it was fashionable for a while, quite some pulp stories (originals or reproductions from today) do it as well.
The problem with that?
It makes the text hard to read for everyone who is not acquainted with the dialect or accent in question. In addition, it serves no real purpose in most cases. You might, of course, produce a crime story in which the victim whispers a word in an obscure dialect spoken far away, leaving the detective struggling hard to interpret that last word. But that is usually not how those passages of dialogue are used. So, instead of writing the dialogue in that accent, simply state a character is speaking it. That will convey the information (where a character is from or, for instance, how high up they are in society, as some accents or dialects will be associate with low-ranking or high-ranking people), but not trouble people who are not familiar with the accent in question.

2. Using foreign languages

Of course your character can meet with people from all over the world (or several others, especially in sci-fi or fantasy settings), but that’s no reason to use several different languages in the text.
The problem with that?
First of all, most people are not able to understand several languages. They will miss whatever information you have in a dialogue line in French, Mandarin, or Russian (or whatever other language you choose). There are, however, also people who will understand several different languages or happen to be natives in that language. To them, a sentence which is anything but logical in the language will be jarring (I personally have that problem with the German fiends in pulp novels speaking German, since it’s my native language), a problem which happens often when you use Google translate. You can use a few words to pepper the dialogue and convey the nationality of a character, but make it words easy to understand (papa, monsieur, etc.) or expressions which clearly aren’t meant to convey any direct information (such as exclamations). If in doubt, just tell the reader that a character is speaking a specific language, but the hero can’t understand it. That will give the reader the necessary information (character X is Russian, for example), but at the same time not waste time and space in the dialogue.

3. Writing speech impediments

Sooner or later, you might be writing a character who is lisping or stuttering or showing other unmistakeable sights in their speech. Perhaps they can’t pronounce a specific letter correctly or say a specific word wrong all the time. Still, don’t try to reproduce any of that in the text, either, unless you’re writing a comic.
The problem with that?
You … could … write a … sentence … like … this … for a character who makes unusual pauses when they speak. O-o-o-or y-y-y-you c-c-c-c-could u-u-use s-s-s-s-something l-l-like t-t-this for a stuttering character. Apart from virtually presenting the problem, however, you will achieve little that way. That is what the descriptions around the actual lines are for. Say your character stuttered two minutes, before he managed to get out “I didn’t see anyone.” Much easier to read and you want your dialogue to flow, so always make it easy to read.

4. Using descriptive texts

You will have to indicate sooner or later who is speaking a specific line of dialogue. If you only have two characters, it’s usually easy. If you mention every now and then who is speaking and you make sure to start a new line whenever someone else starts to speak, that should work. But if more people are part of a conversation, you need to keep the reader updated on who spoke.
How to do that?
Well, the easiest would be ‘X says’ and ‘Y said,’ depending on the tense you’re writing in. That pretty quickly conveys who is speaking, but it also gets old and boring quickly. One way to change that is to use words like ‘shouted,’ ‘whispered,’ ‘growled,’ or ‘hissed.’ All of them also convey more than just ‘said.’ Another way is to add little sentences with what is happening. Usually, people aren’t just standing around stiffly, they move, they perform actions. They show emotion through body language and facial expressions. That also allows you to add information on who is speaking, by describing to the reader what they’re also doing, such as ‘folding their arms in front of their chest’ or ‘glowering at X.’

With those few hints, you can make dialogue much better and easier to read, which your readers will be very grateful for.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Back Bat Pulp Review

Here I’m back again with another pulp review, this time “The Black Bat,” a masked avenger not unlike Batman, but very different all the same. I’ve been through the three volumes of new stories at Airship 27 by now and I really, really liked him. Not to mention I think he might actually make a good movie hero as well. Perhaps a better one than Batman, if done well.

So who or what is the Black Bat and why do I think he’s better than Batman? Well, he’s cooler and hanging out with quite some interesting characters. Let’s do a bit of a comparison first (I’m going to use the basics of Batman, who had a lot of iterations over time).

Name and occupation:

  • The Black Bat: Anthony ‘Tony’ Quinn, lawyer
  • Batman: Bruce Wayne, millionaire and playboy


  • The Black Bat: Carol Baldwin, Butch O’Leary, Silk Kirby
  • Batman: Alfred, several Robins, several Batgirls (and assorted others)

Origin Story:

  • The Black Bat: blinded in court while still working as DA in NYC, later on had an eye transplant (rather a cornea transplant), regained his sight and gained the ability to see in absolute darkness, decided to use his new ability to fight crime
  • Batman: was forced to watch the death of his parents through the hands of a petty criminal, grew up training his body and became a vigilante

The interesting thing for me about Tony Quinn is that he, despite no longer being blind, still pretends to be just that. It serves several purposes: many people aren’t as careful around a blind person and Tony sees more than just perfectly well behind his dark glasses and he’s less likely to be considered for the Black Bat. There is one person, however, who is absolutely sure Tony is the Black Bat and hence tries to trap him at every chance: Lieutenant McGrath from the NYPD. However, McGrath is no bad person at all and there are times when he and the Black Bat work together against a greater evil. At least the new series has no strong recurring villain on one level with the Batman’s Joker, but the villains nevertheless vary greatly, from your average mobster over a German superhero-turned-villain to people with the ability to light someone up from high up in the sky. Still, everything stays in the realm of science, at least by pulp standards. There is nothing truly supernatural.

The interesting thing about the Black Bat’s posse is that all of them have a very personal connection to Tony. Carol Baldwin is the woman who offered him her father’s eyes for the transplant after her father, a small-town sheriff in the mid-west, was killed in action. She stayed with Tony, they are in love, but won’t start a relationship while Tony is still the Bat (which is actually pretty standard in pulp). Carol rarely gets treated as the damsel in distress and rarely stays in distress for long - she’s trained with firearms and Tony relies on her just as much as on the two guys in his posse. Butch O’Leary is officially Tony’s driver and a former price boxer. He’s the one for the physical work. Silk Kirby is officially Tony’s valet and a former con-man. He’s the one with the underworld connection and the glib tongue. Both have first met with Tony during his work and both are reformed now.

Tony leads the life of a blind man in public, has withdrawn from his post as DA after the attack, and now works as a regular lawyer. He has independent wealth, which means he doesn’t need the job all that much, but he’s not on Bruce Wayne’s level money-wise. He does have a few gimmicks (especially depending on who writes him), but he mostly relies on his highly trained body, his amazing eye sight (which allows him to fight in a completely dark room) and heightened senses, and his twin pistols - unlike Bruce, he does use guns. He does, however, also dress completely in black, wears a tight-fitting hood (which mostly serves to hide his identity and the very telling acid scars around his eyes), and a wide, bat-like cape which he also uses to glide on air currents.

What I like about the stories is a lot, actually. I like the characters. Tony Quinn with his sense of humour and constant acting (to convince people he’s blind), Butch with his quick temper, Silk with his even darker humour, the confident Carol who isn’t cowed at all by her male companions. I like the stories, which usually don’t go as high-risk as with “Secret Agent X” or “Jim Anthony” (there’s even a crossover between Tony and Jim in one of the books), but are full of twists and turns and closer to crime stories than to pure adventure. Tony is using his mind just as much as his body and this shows in the stories. Bruce is often called ‘a great detective,’ but these days, he rarely detects.

“The Black Bat” is a nice one, if you like your pulp stories without too much exaggeration and enjoy the main character playing cat-and-mouse with the police and with society. The stories are good, even though the formatting of Volume 2 leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Rocket Launcher Incident

This is the first of The Stories That Weren't ... scenes from my series which weren't included, because they have the wrong POV character (as with this one), wouldn't fit with the tone (I also have a time-travel story written and the Knight Agency is as realistic as is possible for an espionage romp), or just plain have nothing to do with the main characters. Enjoy...

Zachary Brock in

The Rocket Launcher Incident

He definitely had fucked up big time - in more than one way. Brock didn’t struggle much while he was dragged along the neon-lit hallways of the underground hideout. He regretted deeply going in as a scout himself. He was a good leader and good soldier, no question about that, but he’d never been much of a scout. He neither had the build nor the talents for that, which was why he usually asked for Jane for such missions. There was no doubt about it - Jane definitely would not be dragged to her doom at the moment. She’d probably have silently killed a few henchmen already and be on her way to their actual target, securing the approach.
He glanced over his right shoulder and saw the enhanced ambling along behind the group of henchmen who dragged him to their boss. He hated enhanced men - he hated them with an intensity he usually was not capable of. He hated feeling like a little kid in their grip, despite his six-foot-three body. He hated being thrown through the room like a ragdoll, despite being a fully trained soldier. And he knew Jane felt the same way about them. Only - she wouldn’t have been caught by that one. She would have tricked and trapped him. Because, unlike Brock himself, she was good at scouting and at not getting caught. At least she was good at not staying caught. Does it count as getting caught, if you do it on purpose? Probably not.
The hallway opened into a large underground room and a nasty memory of his meeting with the Morrigan flashed through Brock’s mind. That woman had been a nasty piece of work and he had no illusions about his fate, had he been forced to face her on his own. Like I’m now facing that man. No Jane waiting in the shadows to come in and help. I fucked up really, really big there… The henchmen forced him to his knees in front of a throne-like structure which could give the Morrigan’s grand throne room a run for its money. And Brock wasn’t sure whether this self-proclaimed Ice King was any better than the self-proclaimed goddess of war had been.
“We have a visitor, I see.” The man was sitting on the throne with his feet planted far apart and his arms resting on the arm rests - a power pose. “How many more soldiers are waiting outside?”
Brock looked him in the face. “You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?”
“Not immediately, that would be boring.” A cold smiled twisted the Ice King’s lips.
Another sadist. Jane would like that, but I don’t. “Not even eventually.”
“Ah, a hero … or someone who thinks he is one. I like your type … I like seeing them fall from grace.”
Behind Brock, someone screamed in pure, unadulterated fear. He turned around and saw the enhanced completely freeze up. How did that happen? The only way to freeze them up is the Neit Drug and we soldiers still don’t have that.
As if to answer his question, a black shadow dropped from somewhere overhead and landed gracefully amidst the henchmen. A knife flashed and only seconds later the henchmen were down. Even Brock’s mind wasn’t quick enough to analyse the movements, so he knew who was under that hood. An electric blue energy beam shot past Brock and at the shadow, but it missed by ages. The shadow danced out of its way with ease, then threw the knife. A pained wail and the clatter of something heavy hitting the floor made Brock face the Ice King again, seeing the knife hilt protrude from the man’s right shoulder. That hurts… Heavy steps approached the room, but the shadow didn’t move. A moment later, Brock could see why - his team was entering the throne room through the same hallway he’d been dragged through.
He turned to the shadow who was walking towards him. “What are you doing here? Not that I’m not grateful…”
“Well, Steven decided I should go in despite not having been outright asked by you. Sir Leonard requested me being on standby, so I was in the vicinity anyway.”
“What exactly did Steven say?”
Jane took off her hood. “You don’t want to know that, trust me.
“Humour me.”
“His precise words were ‘that moron is going to fuck things up and get himself into deep shit, so go in, clear the way, and drag his sorry ass out of there.’ I kid you not.”
At this, Brock winced. Steven normally isn’t the type for this sort of language. “He’s still vey pissed off, isn’t he?”
She folded her arms in front of her chest. “He’s been banned from the shooting range … once it’s repaired, of course … for half a year, Brock. That is almost on a level with his suit and you know how pissed off he still is about that.”
“Then why did he sent you in so early? Why not let me suffer for a bit? He knows I wouldn’t have divulged any information in a hurry.”
“Luckily, his friendship with you … and mine … surpasses his anger. He’s very much in control of his negative emotions and he holds friendships in high regard because he has few of them.”
“Well, he is right … I did fuck up.”
She rolled her eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. Brock, you never, ever, under any circumstances imaginable, tell Steven Quinn not to shoot something. You never, ever, under any circumstances imaginable tell him he’s too old to shoot a rocket launcher on the shooting range. Unless, of course, you want him to shoot a rocket launcher on the shooting range against better wisdom.”
He made a weak attempt to justify himself: “He’s almost seventy … and quite some soldiers have problems controlling that specific launcher.”
“He is the Reaper, Brock. He controls every weapon mankind has come up with or can come up with in the future. And, honestly, I could have fired that thing just as reliably. But I wouldn’t have done that in an enclosed space… Neither would Steven have, hadn’t you been so adamant about his age. And now he’s banned from the range for half a year, all because of you.”
He hung his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Tell him about that, once we’re out of here with that idiot.”
He lifted his head. “Well, at least you proved Sir Howard right: the queen can and will take the king.”
She mustered the Ice King, now in the hands of Higgs and Connor, and smirked. “Yes, I’ve proven that point about chess. Come on, Brock, I borrowed a set of keys. Let’s get those cuffs off and you to Steven so you can apologize properly.”