I recently read a novel by a best-selling author only to find the ending deeply unsatisfying. The author could definitely write. In fact, that was the problem: the author had set up the protagonist’s main conflict so deeply and so well that by the end, it was dead-obvious the protagonist was going to make a destructive decision.
And therefore, 340 pages into a 360-page novel (rough approximation) a miracle occurred. With the protagonist literally seconds away from ruining everything with a bad decision, her cell phone rang, and she took the call. (Think about that for a minute: “But before I kill you,Mr. Bond, let me answer my phone.”) The call was from the protagonist’s sister, who argued her out of making this terribly bad decision (despite being unable to do so twice before), and the protagonist said, “Oh!” and lo the day was saved.
One of the primary things I tell folks whom I edit or critique is that the protagonist has to be the solver of the central problem, otherwise he or she is an ineffective protagonist. Why not tell the story of the person who solves the problem? Otherwise you have a limp, non-directive protagonist.
Ben Kenobi: “Use the Force, Luke!”
Luke: “I can’t do it!”
Ben: Oh, fine, I’ll do it. There, the Death Star is going to blow up. Go home, kid.
Help from outside works fine when it engages the side-conflicts enough to free the protagonist to take action. But in order for the reader to feel satisfied, the protagonist needs to take effective, believable action to solve the problem.
Which brings us to miracles. I frame God as an author, and as a character in a work, I love miracles because they’re thrilling. But is it possible that God Himself finds them as unsatisfying as I find the ending of that novel? God is willing to send secondary characters to help, or arrange circumstances so you happen to have Krazy Glue in your pocket when you need it, but having a piano fall on the bad guy’s head really is the climax of last resort because it disempowers the characters.
The reality is, the afternoon of the zombie invasion is not going to be the time I go to my mailbox to find the Susquehannah Rifle Company has sent me a carton of free samples.
The miraculous has its place. But think of how often the miracle itself is the start of something rather than the resolution. “Hey,” says Gabriel, “guess what?” and the story unfolds from there.
Having given us free will, God then gives us the chance to experience the full scope of it, and when there are miracles on a large scale, often it’s because we’ve truly worked ourselves into a corner: we’ve failed. The character can no longer make the good decision on her own. The circumstances are too dire and the author doesn’t want it to end that way. But as an author, God doesn’t often engage in that practice, and as writers, neither should we.