authors, reality, miracles

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.


  1. Ivy

    Deus ex machina. It had its place when it was a result of a character’s actions.

    Akhenra is a member of Pharaoh’s army. His courage exceeds his sense and ability. He volunteers for a particularly dangerous assignment to enter Kush and rescued a captured official. No one can know, because it would look poorly on the new king that his own castle security was compromised. Along the way, though he is a poor swimmer, he jumps into the nile during the flooding of Innundation to save a drowning child, nearly drowning himself. He attacks a group of bandits to save a small, unarmed caravan, and is almost overwhelmed, and so it goes, with him acting foolish and brave and barely escaping alive, but with his heart in the right place. During the rescue, he is discovered and cornered by all of the Kush king’s army. He cannot possibly survive; he has pushed his luck too far. Desperate, and finally understanding his own mortality, he calls to his patron deity, Montu, for help. Montu comes down and saves him.

    Today, that’s cheap. Once, that was a reasonable outcome only because Montu values courage. Akhenra put the building blocks in place to merit the later rescue. That plays out sometimes today. Spider-man rescues a construction worker in the beginning of the book, then later, when he’s fighting Sandman, he’s knocked flat, winded for a moment. Sandman comes in for the kill and is thrown aside by a swinging crane. Spider-man clears his head to see the construction worker from the beginning operating the crane. He unintentionally set up his own later rescue.

    This is the recovering alcoholic who is talked out of taking the drink that will put him right back on the road to self destruction by the friends that he brought into AA.

    Readers often find those turns in karma in a story satisfying.

    1. philangelus

      If the MC in that novel had previously talked her sister out of leaving a good relationship, then I would agree the “return the favor” would feel like karma, and it would have been deeply satisfying.

      But the seeds of the end have to be planted in the beginning. In effect, if Spider-man helps the construction worker, then he has planted the seeds of his own resolution later on (the same way we understand he’s tangentially responsible for Uncle Ben’s death.)

    2. philangelus

      And I should add, Spider-man then gets up and finishes pummeling the bad guy. The construction worker he saved earlier just gives him a “get out of that bad situation free” card. He still needs to be an active protagonist and prove he deserves his own title. 🙂

      1. cricketB

        Yes! And building on that a bit more, the construction worker doesn’t just walk on, present the card, and walk off. He’s now on Sandman’s list of “People to kill, just to annoy Spidey.” Or the battle damages the crane. Either way, the rescue ends up raising the stakes.

        If the good advice was to not marry the jerk, she has to deal with (the sympathetic reader hopes reconcile with) everyone she annoyed by not listening to or arguing with earlier. She also has to deal with the reactions of the jerk (and his supporters) when she dumps him.

        One good decision, or card, or bit of luck, or miracle, does not solve every problem, it only solves the immediate one. That’s not to say that all the problems need to be solved by the end.

  2. cricketB

    “The miracle is the start of it.” Love the concept. Convenient that I have three stories on tap today: Raj’s Tiger: The intelligent, talking tiger. Dark Child: The child gives out dark the way a lamp gives off light. Pierre (Who Doesn’t Care): hmmm, the start isn’t that miraculous, but the talking lion is. It’s tempting to start testing more of my favs.

    I like Ivy’s reasoning: An unexpected delayed effect from something he did earlier is often satisfying.