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Diabolus Ex Machina, Sanderson’s First Law, and the Watkins Corollaries

December 1, 2011

Today, I’m going to attempt to make a useful contribution to the lexicon and learning of the writing craft – it’s all in the headline of today’s post.  Perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous of me – an undiscovered author with as-yet little by way of writing cachet – but I had some realizations this week that I think are potentially useful.

Over the past few weeks, I’d written extensively about what I perceived as the problematic ending to Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians.  By and large I found the books well-written and well-crafted – right up until the ending when a number of unexplained plot holes derailed things a bit.  Then it occurred to me this week that the problem with the ending of the book relates, in a way, to a violation of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic.

Sanderson’s First Law goes thusly:

An author’s ability to [satisfactorily] solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the face of things, The Magicians doesn’t appear to break this “law” because the problem with the ending isn’t with how the author solves conflict with magic – the actual resolution to the main conflict is appropriately foreshadowed to some degree - but about how that conflict intensifies because of magic.  You can, perhaps, see where I’m going with this. 

Sanderson’s First Law, as stated, is incomplete.  In the article on his site about the First Law, he says this about “Soft Magic” systems, in which the reader has little or no understanding of the way magic works:

So, if you want to write soft magic systems, I suggest you hold yourself to NOT letting your magic solve problems for your characters. If the characters try to use the magic, it shouldn’t do what they expect it to—as the reader doesn’t know what to expect either. Use the magic for visuals and for ambiance, but not for plot. (Unless it’s there to screw up things for the characters. That’s always okay.)

And therein lies the problem: it’s always okay to have something unexpected and unexplained and incomprehensible come along and screw things up for the characters?  Really?

Yes.  That law is incomplete.  But never fear.  Along come the Watkins Corollaries to resolve this conflict, and once again set right in the land that which has been made wrong.

But first, a short digression.  I first used the term “Watkins Corollary” last week in a comment on Mark Taylor’s blog post about magic systems and Sanderson’s First Law.  In my comment, I noted two specific distinctions that affect the relevance of “Sanderson’s First Law”: the first concerns who is solving a plot conflict and the second concerns the magnitude or severity of the conflict.  These distinctions form the body of the First Watkins Corollary. 

By the “who” I mean this: the author isn’t the one solving the conflict, within the context of the story.  The characters are.  The degree to which a reader needs to be able to understand the details of a magic system are directly proportional to the proximity of the reader to the character solving the conflict in relation to the context of the narrative.  A reader is most likely to closely associate with the protagonist.  So when the protagonist uses magic to solve a problem, readers are more likely to be satisfied if they understand why it is that what the protagonist is doing will solve the conflict.  Sometimes, however, other entities - other characters – solve conflicts for the protagonist.  We don’t always need to understand how or why those others can do what they do to help the protagonist.  But if we want to avoid the problems of a Deus Ex Machina, we have to at least understand that it can be done: we have to have seen the ability demonstrated.

Even proximity to a protagonist using magic doesn’t necessarily mean that the system needs to have hard-and-fast rules for every conceivable circumstance.  But protagonists can’t solve problems by authorial fiat: there needs to be a logical structure to the conflict and its immediate solution, by degrees.

Which brings me to the second specific point: the degree of severity of the conflict being solved.  Or, to really cut to the heart of the matter: the proximity of the conflict to the climax of the book.  The climax, in particular, is the crucial point of the book.  This is the make-or-break, and this is where reader satisfaction with a story hinges most on the reader’s reaction to how plot conflicts are resolved.  In general, readers will be more forgiving of a sudden Deus Ex Machina swooping in to save characters from a relatively minor plot conflict at a non-crucial point in the story.  But when the core conflict of the story is solved by fiat, it feels contrived and unsatisfying.  Therefore, the degree to which a plot-solving capability – be it magical or otherwise – needs to be understood by the readers in is directly proportional to the proximity of the conflict being solved to the central climax of the book.

The example that I gave in my comment on Mark Taylors blog concerns the great Eagles in the Lord of the Rings.  Nowhere, neither in the books nor in the movies, is it fully explained what the Eagles are or what they’re fully capable of – you have to go to The Silmarillion for that.  For all we know, they are just giant intelligent birds.  The Eagles don’t come into play to solve the main plot conflict.  Rather, they come into play in an earlier, lesser conflict to aid Gandalf and then later in a post-climactic lesser conflict to aid Frodo and Sam.  (I’m playing coy with the details because sometimes, often, Dear Wife reads my blog, and she hasn’t yet read nor seen the Lord of the Rings, but I hope to sit and watch the movies with her in the nearish future.)  When the Eagles appear in these cases, they don’t feel like Dei Ex Machinae.  In the first case this works, at least in part, because they are both (a) removed from the experience of the protagonist and (b) because they are very far removed from the climax.  In the second case they are used to save the protagonist and in a conflict that occurs very near after the climactic moment – but it works because of the earlier usage in which their capabilities are foreshadowed.

And so, we have a formulation for the First Watkins Corollary to Sanderson’s First Law of Magic:

The satisfaction readers derive from the resolution of a plot conflict, with respect to the capabilities – magic or otherwise – used to resolve the conflict, is proportionately affected by the proximity of the reader to the characters affected by the conflict and the proximity of the conflict itself being resolved to the story’s central climactic moment – the closer the reader is to the character involved in the conflict and the closer the conflict is to the climax, the greater the need for a prior demonstration of the capabilities used to resolve the conflict and for reader comprehension of those capabilities.

Okay, so it’s a lot less succinct than Sanderson’s First Law, but that’s because it’s filling in a couple holes.

But I haven’t gotten to how this relates to my primary concern with The Magicians.  In the climactic moments of that book, the resolution is effectively foreshadowed.  But even so, the ending was still unsatisfying.  Why?  Because of the Second Watkins Corollary, which might also be called the Inverse Watkins Corollary.  Basically, it’s just the opposite of the Watkins Corollary: when things go bad, they have to go bad in a way that makes sense. 

Just as a sudden and inexplicable positive resolution to a plot conflict – what we call a Deus Ex Machina – is unsatisfying, so too is a sudden and inexplicable worsening of the conflict – a Diabolus Ex Machina.  But the sudden worsening of the situation can be more or less unsatisfying in direct correlation, once again, to the same factors that affect reader satisfaction with a positive resolution.

So here is the Second (Inverse) Watkins Corollary in its codified form:

The satisfaction (which might be understood to mean tension or suspense) readers derive from the worsening of a plot conflict is proportionately affected by the proximity of the reader to the characters affected by the conflict and the proximity of the conflict itself being worsened to the story’s central climactic moment – the closer the reader is to the character involved in the conflict and the closer the conflict is to the climax, the greater the need for a prior explanation of the factors leading to the worsening situation.

With respect to magic systems or a character’s capabilities that might otherwise prove useful in resolving a plot, the Inverse Watkins Corollary basically means that if a capability might be useful in resolving a given plot conflict, the inability of a character to use that capability when attempting to resolve said conflict needs to be understood by the reader.  If the sudden removal of the capability from the character is never explained or understood, that will probably be fairly unsatisfying to the reader.  And this was problem with The Magicians.  Right up until the climactic moment of the book, the capabilities of various characters changed dramatically, for better and especially for worse – so much so that when the final resolution occurs, it doesn’t matter that it was properly foreshadowed, because everything that occurred before it had become nonsensical and inexplicable.  The final resolution is a negative outcome, but it feels forced and contrived. 

I have one final note regarding all of the above: all of these points are subject to differing conditions for differing genres.  In some genres reader understanding of these factors will be more or less important based on genre conventions: in horror, for instance, inexplicability might be a feature and not a bug.  (How less frightening is Cthulhu once you understand who and what he/it is?)  This fact is part of why Sanderson formulated  his First Law in the first place: to allow for a continuum of explicability in magic systems while simultaneously avoiding the problem of Dei Ex Machinae.  In that sense, these rules I’ve formulated here don’t replace those genre rules – nor do they replace Sanderson’s First Law – rather they are meant to add to and extend those rules.  Ultimately, when you’re writing your story, you have to do what feels right, to you as a writer.  But hopefully these thoughts will help you avoid the pitfalls of both Dei Ex Machinae as well as Diaboli Ex Machinae.

So… there  you have it, folks.  A genuine contribution to the field of scholarly understanding of the craft of writing.  But as with all scholarly undertakings, my theories and ideas need to be subjected to academic criticism and debate.  So, I submit this to you, Dear Reader.  What do you think?  How important is it that readers be able to understand how a plot conflict is resolved - whether the outcome is positive or negative – or how a situation is improved or worsened in a story?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 8:36 am

    I think the Eagles is a very good example, both because they are established earlier (not connected with the protagonist), and because they are not involved in the central plot resolution (and in fact, it would have been fine if they had now shown up again at all).

    Tom Bombadil is another good example, since he is never explained, but he performs only a minor plot function, and then he vanishes. So, he’s just an entertaining illustration of how complex the world of Middle Earth actually is. (And, as I think about it, he serves as an illustration later in the book that what is needed to resolve the central plot issue is determination, not power.)

    Also, I was disappointed that you brought in the genre issue at the end, because I wanted to mention that. :-) After all, I have some characters with paranormal abilities, but I never mention this in the mystery stories, because in a “mystery story” that would violate the genre rules. (I know you can mash up genres, but I’m pretty trad about my mystery stories.)

    • December 2, 2011 8:53 am

      Ha! Sorry to steal your thunder in my own blog post ;) Tom Bombadil is an interesting case, to be sure. I loved his scenes in the book, but I was not disappointed that they were not in the movie – of everything in LotR they’re the most incongruous part of the books. (I was a little unsure how they would justify the damage Merry was able to do to the Witch-King in the Battle of Pelennor Fields without the enchanted dagger from the Barrow cache, but in the end it was basically a non-issue; you don’t notice it as a big deal in the movie.) What I liked about Bombadil was the whimsy he injected into Tolkiens world, suggesting some deep and mysterious and ultimately good magic in the founding of Middle-earth. But it does present a strange question: Bombadil was able to handle the Ring with complete nonchalance (and even to wear it without any noticeable effects, including not going invisible), and that fact begs the question of who and what Bombadil is, questions that would’ve taken too much time to answer (since there aren’t any answers in official Tolkienology) within the time constraints of the movie.

      • December 3, 2011 8:30 am

        I wouldn’t have minded if Bombadil had been in the movie, but I was also fine with leaving him out. You can’t have a five-hour movie.

        What I was upset about (I think we’ve talked about this before) was leaving out The Scouring of the Shire. That, to me, is the heart of the whole story, but I think the omission (and the fact that, AFAIK, there was never any intention of filming it) shows that Jackson feels very differently about the Shire than Tolkien did. Which was already obvious.

        I still love the movies, though.

      • December 5, 2011 9:20 am

        Yeah, I think the topic has come up. To me… I guess I was okay with leaving it out simply because it apparently didn’t make that strong an impression on me when I read the books (I’d forgotten that the scene even happened). On the other hand: the hobbits coming home to a still-peaceful, still-untouched Shire says something very different about the hobbits’ journey than does the coming home to a corrupted Shire that has fallen to a creeping evil. One of the things that resonates with me now that I’m older that likely didn’t when I was younger is the idea that you can never truly come home: that the journey changes you, and home changes as a result. If home never changes… in a way that suggests the character hasn’t really grown or changed or grown as a result of the journey. In a way, the home is like an external metaphor for the character’s journey. So even though I didn’t remember it when I was younger… the scene makes a lot more narrative sense to me now that I’m a little older.

  2. December 1, 2011 2:41 pm

    “in horror, for instance, inexplicability might be a feature and not a bug.” True! You never know what might happen, which is why it is frightening.

    My brain’s a little fried and in knots right now LOL

    • December 2, 2011 8:59 am

      Indeed. Part of the essential paradigm of horror is that the you (as reader) don’t understand the rules; the rules of the world that you thought you understood are thrown out the window, but new rules are not provided to replace them. That’s part of why I objected to the “always” in Brandon’s statement. Sure, “always” if you’re writing in the horror genre, but not necessarily so in other genres. To me, if I’m not reading a horror story, and you start throwing inexplicable, random crap at the protagonist without some logical framework or reason for it, I’m likely to get frustrated with the book.

  3. December 2, 2011 2:15 am

    Aha, thanks for saying this! I’ve complained to friends offline about this kind of thing a lot and I’m glad someone put it together with this much detail.

    I think another piece of reader psychology – or maybe I’m just speaking for myself – is that many people like to imagine that they could have figured out the ending/solved the mystery/so on and so forth, and it feels unfair if the author drags in something completely out of nowhere. Like how on TV procedurals, the villain is 99% of the time some minor character that the detectives interviewed but dismissed just before the first commercial break, as opposed to someone the audience never saw.

    • December 2, 2011 7:15 am

      Kara, I agree that it’s bad form to pull a solution out of nowhere, but as you say it can be effective to have the murderer turn out to be someone the reader/viewer saw and dismissed as incidental. Or you can even have it be someone who has been there all along, maybe even working with the detectives, but (I’m thinking about your “99% of the time” comment) that can become predictable, too. After all, if the murderer is always the “least likely suspect,” then the least likely becomes the most likely. :-)

      Several mystery writers have ended a series by having the detective, or the detective’s assistant, turn out to be the murderer. Obviously, this is a trick you can only pull once, but it can be effective. Murder She Wrote did this once, too. An actor who played regular secondary character (a deputy, if I recall correctly) was leaving the show, so in his last episode they made him the murderer. Surprised the hell out of me, I can tell you, but in the context of the show it was completely fair.

      • December 2, 2011 9:05 am

        I think I vaguely remember that episode of Murder She Wrote… it was hard-hitting; such a betrayal! Man, I miss that show. It was, for my money, the best murder mystery/detective program on TV, ever.

      • December 3, 2011 8:44 am

        Some people would favor Columbo, but either way you’d be praising the same guys, since both shows were created by Levinson and Link. I enjoyed Columbo because of the scripting and how great Falk was, but of course Murder She Wrote was more of a classic mystery show, since you didn’t know in advance who had done it. And, of course, there was Angela Lansbury, who was great.

        My favorite Levinson/Link show was Ellery Queen, which ran for only one season (which I have on DVD). A lot of the elements from that show ended up in Murder She Wrote and Columbo later.

        I also have to mention the excellent Nero Wolfe show that ran a few years ago (which I also have on DVD). They took an unusual tack, in that they basically used the Wolfe stories and novels as the scripts, with minimal edits, so it’s amazingly faithful to the real thing. One of the writers said he had to unlearn everything he knew about how to structure a four-act TV episode, because the stories weren’t structured that way.

        And, by coincidence, Archie Goodwin was played by Timothy Hutton, whose father Jim had played Ellery Queen in that show. :-)

      • December 5, 2011 9:21 am

        Now, see, I didn’t know pretty much any of that. :) Then again, mystery is not my core genre. I appreciate the genre, and enjoy a few good mysteries, but my heart belongs elsewhere. ;)

    • December 2, 2011 9:02 am

      You’re right – it’s not just you – that’s a common reader expectation. I think that particular expectation is genre-dependent. Mystery readers, especially, crave this. It’s absolutely essential to the msytery genre, I think. It’s less imperative for other genres (and, for example, would probably actively detract from the experience of a horror story), but in epic fantasy, for instance, it’s usually still important for the ending to bring everything together and make sense in a logical way even if the reader isn’t necessarily expected to put it all together before the end.

  4. December 2, 2011 6:47 pm

    I can’t add anything that hasn’t been explored in either of our blogs. Nice analysis and corollaries to Sanderson’s First Law. Ultimately, we want satisfied readers. Notice I didn’t say “happy” readers, because sometimes we want the reader to be frightened in a horror story, intrigued in a mystery story, in wondrous awe of a fantasy story, adrenalin pumping in a thriller, etc. Each genre has its satisfactions and the author’s main job is to bring that to the reader. An author that can do that consistently is going to be successful.

    How that is done, is another story and a lifelong pursuit for most of us.

    • December 5, 2011 9:07 am

      I think you’re on to another very important corollary – something that I hinted at here but didn’t formally declare in a structured format: something about how Sanderson’s First Law is subservient to genre-reader demands. But I’m not quite sure how properly to formalize that rule.

      • December 5, 2011 4:07 pm

        It’s probably self-evident that the First Law, since it covers the use of magic, is intended for the fantasy genre and its sub-genres. But a case could be made for additional corollaries, if “magic” is replaced with “plot device” as you’ve done.

      • December 5, 2011 4:11 pm

        That’s true that in the way originally formulated, Sanderson appears to be speaking specifically about Fantasy. That said, at least with regard to his Second Law, and to a lesser degree his First, he’s referred to them in a general sense himself, effectively replacing “magic” with some term similar to how I use “plot device” here. He was trying to generalize the utility of these lessons to non-Fantasy genres… and they do hold some utility outside of fantasy. They’re very useful laws, for instance, in writing Sci Fi or realistic fiction. But they’re not universally applicable without some hefty genre-specific caveats in several circumstances.

  5. December 2, 2011 11:49 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I like the style with which you tell them. Like most things I’m going to have to swirl them into the mix of my brain and stew on them.

  6. February 28, 2012 4:08 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It does help bring additional depth to Sanderson’s First Law. I keep waiting for further additions to the list but despite the implication that they exist they have yet to make an appearance.

    I am someone who loves world building and in the process of walking others through the building of magic systems I’ve learned a great deal of benefit to me. I find that when done well, magic becomes a driving creative source in the world. As an author I seek depth in understanding it. Note that in my current projects I’ve discovered the world first and then watched as the characters and stories began to populate it. In that situation, the characters own understanding and interpretation of the magic they wield also becomes a dynamic plot tool and I often find myself watching as a story unfolds before me.

    • February 29, 2012 11:52 am

      And thank you, for reading. I’m glad this helped provide some useful depth to Sanderson’s thoughts. I agree that, done well, magic in a Fantasy will play an interesting and vital role in a story. It will affect people’s worldviews, their beliefs and ideas, their understanding of what’s possible, and that character-defining aspect is critical to plot development. Further… obviously a magic system is an important part of worldbuilding in a fantasy story, and I find that a well-thought-out world plays a role similar to that of a major character.

      • March 1, 2012 3:02 pm

        “I find a well-thought-out world plays a role similar to that of a major character.” That is a great way of stating it.

      • March 22, 2012 5:34 pm

        I’d like to hear some thoughts from another aspiring author. The question is in regard to platform and it’s in my last blog post if you don’t mind giving a little feedback from your own experience. Cheers!

      • March 23, 2012 8:37 am

        Well… I’d be happy to… except when I stopped by your blog, I didn’t see anything in your recent posts that looked like it had to do with writing. Do you have a link?

      • March 24, 2012 1:55 pm

        Yes, I apologize because the question is part of a dual post. I referred to it as “my online monster” and it follows a quick blurb for MSC30.

        http://buildabiggerbox.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/midsouthcon30-my-online-monster/

      • March 26, 2012 9:58 am

        Well, I see the problem, actually. I was clicking over to the blog that’s linked through your name, which doesn’t appear to be your writing-focused blog.

      • March 26, 2012 3:28 pm

        ah, yes… that blog may soon vanish. I should likely prioritize the other which includes writing. Life just has more happening in that realm these days. Thanks for taking a look.

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