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Monday, September 1, 2014

Plot Bombs, Deus Ex Machina, and MCs- An Intro to Writer Lingo

Picture this: A group of writers are sitting in a circle, some squished together on a loveseat, a few in chairs, and one sitting on the floor. They’re all balancing a stack of printed papers on their knees, which they scribble furiously on, marking them up.

All except one writer, that is.

You are sitting in the middle of the couch, glancing around nervously, biting your lip as your gaze moves from one writer to the other. You clutch your stack of papers in your hands, crumpling the edges a little. Reminding yourself to remain calm, you take deep breaths in hopes of slowing your rapid heartbeat. A lump is in your throat as you wait for the others to declare your fate. With every pen scratch, you are more and more positive that this will end with a declaration by your fellow writers that you can never write another word again. Then, they will ceremonially burn everything you have ever written, sacrificing it as an offering of apology to those great literary minds you had the nerve to think you could ever be a part of.
Finally, one of the writers looks up, a young man with blond hair and glasses. He glances around at all the other writers, who are still writing away, and ventures, “I liked it. Your MC is great.”
The others look up and nod, a few voicing their agreement before going back to their notes.
You feel even more edgy, waiting for the "but" that is sure to continue the statement.
“I especially love how you start it in media res.”
Still waiting for the "but."
The girl sitting on the floor looks up then, her dark bangs falling across her forehead. She tosses her head to get them out of her eyes. “Yeah, I really liked that too. I drew me in right away and made me want to know what was going to happen. But, then, the scene after it felt like a bit of an info dump.”
See, you knew the “but” was coming. Now that the door had been opened for criticism, there will be no holds barred in telling you what a horrible writer you are.
The girl sitting next to you, a freckle-faced redhead with a gap between her front teeth, looks up from her papers. “There was also a lot of telling. Especially in the scene between-” she shuffles though the pages until she finds what she’s looking for “-Kelsey and Helen. You really want to try to show instead of tell.”
The others nod in agreement, some looking up from their notes, others continuing to write as they nod.
“But, I loved the part with the soap.” The girl with the bangs grins. “That was great. Definitely keep that the way it is.”
The boy next to you on the couch frowns. “Except there’s a bit of a plot hole introduced in that scene. You said she’d never seen a bar of soap before, but then later, in the Black Moment, you says she grew up in a soap shop. How did she grow up in a soap shop without ever seeing a bar of soap?”
Quite frankly, you’re not sure. And you tell him so. Man, how are you going to fix that one? The soap shop’s really important, but you really love that scene. And the girl with bangs seems to like it too.

Stupid plot bomb.
“Also,” the girl in the chair across from you speaks up, putting her pencil in the air, as if raising it to ask permission to speak. When no one interrupts, she swallows and continues, “It was a bit of a deus ex machina, her knowing how to make soap in the end without you foreshadowing it even once. Especially after that soap scene and everything.”
So true. So very, very true.
“Also, the part where you say-” the redhead flips through her pages once more “-her eyes flew to the other side of the room is a loose body part and creates a really disturbing image in my mind.”
Oh, right. You meant to change that. You really did.
The last girl, the one sitting in a chair to the loveseat’s left clears her throat. She hasn’t said anything yet but has been shuffling through the pages marking things up like crazy. You brace yourself. “I agree pretty much with what everyone else has said. I made a few other notes I don’t need to go into right now. Just one question: do have any more of this written? I really want to know what happens to Kelsey.”
You bite your lip, that question the most dreaded of all. You knew someone was going to ask and you hate to have to tell them the truth. “Um, no, not really. See, I was working on it, but then I got this plot bunny…”

If you have never been in a critique group, you might not understand the scene above. Or, even if you have, you might not have had any idea what was going on. Either way, the point of this post wasn’t just to show you what a critique group looks like, but to also explain some really great literary terms. Especially the ones that involves things you shouldn’t do.

(I should note, regular critique groups usually involve a lot more positive affirmation, but for the sake of this demonstration, I left a lot of that out. Though, the writer who is being critiqued generally still feels as I described above, no matter how much everyone loves their work XD)

All right, here we go:

MC: This one is pretty simple. While to the rest of the world “MC” stands for “Master of Ceremonies” for writers it stands for “Main Character”

In Media Res: This is a Latin term that literally translated “in the middle of things.” This is when the story starts in the middle of the story (or even sometimes closer to the end) and then we have to go back to show what happened to bring the story to this place.

Sometimes a writer will do that simply by starting the next chapter with “Four Days Earlier” or something similar and then tell the story from that point up until where we started. And, sometimes flashbacks are used as a means to show what happened, so that the action jumps back and forth between where we started and what happened after that scene, and the flashbacks of what happened before the opening.

Info Dump: This is when you feel the need to dump everything on your reader in such a way that even though your story is fictional, it starts to feel like a history book. I’m sure you have all read a book at some point in your life that started with the prologue giving you’re the entire history of the fantasy kingdom the world is set it, told in such a way that you start to wonder if the whole book is written this way, if there’s ever going to be an action, and if Prince ThfnSieefbjwwd sock’s really have anything to do with anything.

Another kind of info dump, is one in dialogue, which writers sometimes call “As you know” conversations. That’s when two or more characters have a conversation about something they all know but feel the need to give full details about anyway because the reader need to know them (“As you know, Frank, you have been training to be a knight for six years now. You nearly failed that one time and let me go into all the details because I am sure you have forgotten them…” Yeah, no, don’t do that.)

Show, Don’t Tell: This is probably the most common thing writers say. You will hear it every time anyone ever critiques your work and it is in pretty much every writing curriculum ever. Basically, it’s the concept of showing your readers what is going on instead of just telling them.

Don’t say “Linda was nervous”; show her biting her nails or her lip, have her give a nervous laugh, or says something totally awkward, or any other thing people do when they’re nervous. Don’t say “It was cold”; show puffs of air as people breath, have your MC shiver, talk about the wind or the snow or the ice. Anything to show your readers it is cold. Give them pictures of what is going on and their brains will fill in what the actions mean.

As Anton Chekhov put it: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Plot Hole: This is when something in your plot doesn’t make sense, a.k.a. when there is a hole in your otherwise pretty tight plot. Like in the scene above, when the MC who has never seen a bar of soap suddenly claims to have grown up in a soap shop and knows how to make soap. I’m sure you can see how that might not really work in a story.

Plot Bomb: Okay, technically this isn’t an official writer phrase. My dad and I made this one up. But, it’s a true dilemma writers face and hopefully it will catch on. A plot bomb is when you discover a plot hole in your writing and your wonderful story dies in a glorious explosion.

Black Moment: This is the scene right before the showdown when things get as black as they possibly can for the MC. In a lot of adventure novels, this is usually when that really important person dies. But, someone doesn’t have to die. Everything just needs to go wrong. Horribly wrong. Because your MC needs to be broken completely before he can rise victorious and become a hero.

And, if you don’t know what a showdown is, you obviously need to watch more westerns…

Deus Ex Machina: This is a Latin phrase meaning “God from the machine.” In writing, the term is applied when a seemingly insolvable problem is solved so easily and conveniently that it could only have been accomplished with divine help (which is cheating when you’ve promised your readers a more intense showdown)

The term came because in ancient plays and stuff, the gods would literally come down and make everything right. They would take care of the bad guys, make sure the good guys were rewarded, and no doubt preform the marriage between MC and Love Interest in the process.

Loose body part: As the name suggests, this terms is applied when a body part moves as if of its own free will and is no longer attached to the person. Like above when I used the example of “her eyes flew across the room” The proper phrasing here would be to say that “her gaze flew across the room” because a gaze can go pretty much anywhere it pleases. But, eyes flying across the room implies that the eyes either sprouted wings or got thrown or some other disgusting thing I quite frankly don’t want to continue to picture or discuss.

Plot Bunny: This is what they call it when you’re happily working on a story and then all of a sudden you get a new idea that demands to be written. You know, kind of like when you’re walking along quite careful to stay on the path and then all of a sudden “Oh, look, a bunny!” and next thing you know you’re dashing off into a field chasing the little beast.

 It’s basically what we writers call it when we have trouble focusing and we dash off willy-nilly, chasing whatever story idea happens to come along. Kind of like the dogs in Up with the squirrels. Does that remind anyone of a certain blogger they know of? Because it sure reminds me of one…

How about you? Did you find this post informative? Have you ever experienced the critique group horrors? Do you plan to start using Plot Bomb and introduce all your friends to the genius of it? Are there any terms I’ve forgotten that I should include in a follow-up post?


  1. "PLOT BOMB"??? That just might be the newest, catchiest, amazing writing phrase this side of the last century! Who has time to think up all this cool stuff all the time anyway? Wow. I am going to make every effort to start using this at least twice a day (but only because I'm not completely convinced that "thrice" is a real word), and I think everyone else should, too! (Although, hopefully not in reference to themselves or their own works...)

  2. I think we all have plot bunnies. I know I have seen several already today.