Thursday, March 4, 2010

thoughts on YA: of xylophones and violins

Lately INTERN has been reading a lot of quirky/funny YA manuscripts and noticed a phenomenon which she has been struggling to articulate to herself: a pattern of brand-new gags, information, and characters being teleported in at the last minute to solve the problems of the story. It was more than just deus ex machina—but what was it?

Then last night INTERN went to a potluck that turned into an informal jam session and saw the same phenomenon at work. The host of the party dumped a huge box of instruments on the floor and everybody grabbed whatever looked interesting. Everybody started playing.

And something interesting happened.

The less experienced and confident musicians quickly abandoned whatever instrument they'd grabbed first and started scrabbling around for another one. They kept on switching instruments frequently as they grew bored or frustrated with whatever they had in their hands.

The more experienced musicians tended to stick to whichever instrument had first caught their fancy, whether it was a zither or a set of bongo drums. They had the skills to exploit whatever instrument they had in their hands to its fullest potential. They weren't always rummaging through the box for a new one in the hopes that this is the one that would finally make music.

The inexperienced musicians kept trying out new instruments to solve their musical problems. The experienced musicians, like veteran cryptic crossword puzzle solvers, knew the answer was in the question.

So many YA manuscripts start out fun, crazy, and wonderful, then enter this weird spiral where the author doesn't know how to resolve all the zany hi-jinks and starts freaking out: "OKOKOKOK....moon people! That'll be hilarious! Aaaaaaand....I'll say that all this time, the antagonist was secretly a hummingbird! That'll solve everything!" Instead of using elements that already belong to the world of the story, they start looking for an extrinsic solution, which, even if it kinda works, is never as emotionally or intellectually satisfying as a solution that comes from deep within the story.

It's more satisfying, somehow, to see a magician pull a rabbit out of the hat he's been wearing all along than to see the magician call a herd of purple goats from the enchanted flute that just dropped out of the hatch that just now appeared in the ceiling.


  1. And rabbits are sooooo much easier to clean up after too!

  2. I think that qualifies as a sort of deus ex machina, although maybe not in the traditional sense.

    I totally agree that you shouldn't contract out work your story can do in-house, though. I think that's part of what makes a lot of inexperienced writers' work lack focus. And it can also result in padding the story.

    Another thing that might be at work here is the plot twist. A lot of new (and old) writers think that plot twists make a better story, and they do. But you have to have some hints, some foreshadowing, I you don’t want the twist to come out of left field and smack the reader upside the head.

  3. I think you have the analogy world conquered.

    There is ONE situation where I will make an exception to the "they'll never make it out alive. But, oh, LOOK!" at the critical moment. Luck. Not a new invention, being, discovered power, previously undisclosed prophecy, but sheer, dumb luck. It's okay for characters to have good luck sometimes.

    Otherwise, don't invent it for the scene.

  4. Is this the forum for trying to say that sometimes deus ex machina makes sense? That it can, if done well, be worked into the plot. And the important thing, of course, is that it mustn't come simply out of no where. For instance, an interesting one would be where the friends/allies that the protagonist befriended/allied with before the climax show up to get the protag out of trouble, if the theme of the novel is that, in the words of the Beatles, "I'll get by with a little help from my friends."

    The ancient Greeks, after all, didn't use deus ex machina because they sucked at playwrighting. They used deus ex machina because they wanted to emphasize human reliance on the gods. There was point... but it has to be for a reason, and a better one than laziness.

  5. Oh Queen of the Analogy, when I grow up I want to be just like you!

    I agree. I've been seeing this alot, and since I'm not in the industry, books are obviously getting published with it. Not just YA, either.

    Worse yet are the ones that advertise themselves as one thing and turn out to be another. The summary is something like "hardened criminal Hogan finds himself constantly impeded by clumsy housewife, Melanie." But in the actual book, Hogan dies halfway through and the story suddenly becomes about Melanie's falling in love with the cop that was managing the case. WHAT???

  6. That's such an excellent example to show what you are talking about. I've seen that musician thing happening in lots of areas of life - but never thought to relate it back to storytelling. I have a feeling I'll be repeating your example in many workshops to come. Thanks.

  7. Chekhov's Gun. Anton Chekhov, the writer.

    The less known Chekhov's principle of the drama;
    "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." From Gurlyand's _Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov_, 1904.

    The reverse then might be, If a pistol is fired late in a story, it should first be depicted ready to hand earlier in the story.

    The spontaneous music performance analogy doesn't quite directly apply to Chekhov's Gun. In a stretch, though, musicians already have a musical ear. Their musical gift is prepositioned. Less gifted musicians take time to find an instrument that suits their ears.

  8. INTERN, sadly this does not just apply to YA. It's rampant in all genres, especially suspense, thriller, mystery, urban fantasy, paranormals...and far too many films to name here.

    Many a book or film begin promising, ripe with potential, only to fail miserably with their ending.

    A great ending is the most difficult part to write.
    Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times. To get it right.
    Bad endings are lazy endings.

    Have a happy weekend,

  9. While yes, it can be a sign of inexperience, I think it's more readily a sign of the influences of the genre. Harry Potter is rife with deus ex machina and it is the largest YA selling series since...ever. Plenty of series did it before that (especially by British authors for some reason). While there isn't a wizarding school, I always found a lot of similarities between Potter and the Dark is Rising Sequence. The main character in that series (written some thirty years ago) won the day frequently with something that appeared at the last moment.

    Like all things, it'll cycle in and out of popularity.

    (Though I agree about the hat being worn the entire time. That is a far cooler magic trick. For example, I recommend Ricky Jay's History Lesson:

  10. Too many people who watch too much TV also think that a YA book is a good "starter" project for a novice writer, so they give it a whirl, with predictable results.

  11. AAHAHAHAH! Ditto Laurel. You're the master of analogies!

  12. Wow, this is a great article and great analogy! Thank you!

    I'm not an experienced writer, but being an experienced musician, I just can't visualise inexperienced ones _trying out_ various instruments!! Must have been a helluva lot of noise at that party! :-)))))

    Thank you so much!!!!

  13. Damn. There goes my plot twist about the moon person who turns out to be a hummingbird.

  14. I have read this very point quite a few times now from agents, and my point is not to say that you're redundant. Obviously it's a new thing out there, to inundate agents and interns with manuscripts that aren't ready yet! Good ideas are not enough.

  15. Best. Post. Ever. Period.

    *Five periods, actually, but who counts anymore anyway?*

  16. It's laziness, isn't it? I hope THE INTERN has as little patience for this as for other lapses of judgment.

  17. Moliere got away with it.

    'Course, he was kissing up to the aristocracy that paid him. I don't know what your writers' excuses are.

  18. In all seriousness, I wonder if the reason you're seeing this in YA is that a certain level of retro absurdism (a la Alice in Wonderland and similar classics) has been sneaking back into recently-published works. I think authors are often at pains to be shiny!new!original! and in hopes of achieving that, they toss in moon people and werehummers whenever possible. It may be inexperience, insecurity, or a desire to stretch story to its ultimate boundary. Obviously, it doesn't always work. ;)

  19. Excellent point! In my last book, I worked very hard to make sure all the stuff that happens in the end had a place throughout the story. It always bugs me when something enters stage left at the last minute and Eureka! the problem is solved!

  20. "It's more satisfying, somehow, to see a magician pull a rabbit out of the hat he's been wearing all along than to see the magician call a herd of purple goats from the enchanted flute that just dropped out of the hatch that just now appeared in the ceiling."

    ...Unless, of course, you're Terry Pratchett. ;-)

  21. The inexperienced musicians kept trying out new instruments to solve their musical problems. The experienced musicians knew the answer was in the question.

    Master Po couldn't have said it better.