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 Post subject: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2015 6:04 am 
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The other day I was reading a discussion on writing between Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson, two contemporary fantasy authors. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, but this one bit by Brent Weeks really jumped out at me:

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The Greeks of the fifth century BC believed in many gods, and they believed those gods intervened in real life (especially with the heroes who were so often the gods' own kids). The original plays happened during a religious festival. So part of the point of the drama (as my Classics prof explained it) was that humans make a huge mess—and need the gods to come straighten things out. Thus, the Athenians get rid of the endless cycle of personal retributive justice (you-killed-my-family-member-so-I-must-kill-you-so-your-family-must-kill-me) in the Oresteia only through Athena's intervention and establishment of the rule of law. (She sticks the Furies into the ground beneath Athens, if I remember correctly.) Intractable problem solved.

We don't believe in Athena (sorry, neo-pagans, but generally...), so reading that ending is interesting metaphorically and sociologically and historically. But it is much less interesting to us dramatically. And it doesn't fill us with religious awe. We're just not going to express a heartfelt, "Thank you Athena for sparing me!" (Stop me before I talk catharsis and Aristotle's Poetics here. No really, stop me!)

A deus ex machina written now runs into entirely different audience expectations. It just looks like the author cheating. "Hmm, the way I've set things up, the good guy will die, but I don't want that. So... magic sword!"

I think there are only a couple routes you could use if you really wanted to write a modern day deus ex machina that worked. First, you could set up a fantasy world in which the gods do regularly intervene and play favorites, and where mortals need them. It could be done well. However, at the end of that book, you're still not going to get religious awe from your audience. I think you can get everything else.

So I think the only way to have the full effect that Aeschylus got would be to write your epic fantasy specifically for a particular religious audience: set up your deus as a Hindu goddess for a Hindu audience and then have her act in ways consistent with what they believe is her character. Or a Christian God for a Christian audience, or what have you. I guess the limiter here would be that you'd have to choose a religion which believes in an intervenient God. Deists, you're hosed.

Is that success?

We have a strong rationalist thread in fantasy right now, a demand that the magic system be explained and consistent so that the author doesn't cheat at the end. If magic figures importantly to the plot, we want it stitched in there like a good mystery: all the hints were there for us to figure it out for ourselves, we just didn't put it together. There's an intellectual pleasure to it: Well played, Mr. Sanderson! Compare that to the magic of Tolkien's Gandalf. The guy is treated like he can pull mountains down on your head, but mostly he just uses the Magic Staff Flashlight. Come on, Tolkien, how about a chart of what the Rings of Power do? The people demand a graph!

Reading this, I wonder if the contemporary Western taste for well-foreshadowed plot twists, and distaste for deux ex machina, is actually an outworking of a shift in worldview from religious to rationalistic. If so, is it more Christian to write a story that doesn't rely entirely on foreshadowing, hints, etc. to validate a plot twist? Basically, to write a story that doesn't appeal to a rationalist worldview to make the story work? Have we lost a capacity to appreciate God's power in stories because of a shift to a rationalistic worldview?

What do you think?

(For the record, I'm asking these questions to generate discussion, not because I necessarily agree with what I'm positing.)

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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Tue Dec 01, 2015 10:26 pm 
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My guess is that the contemporary Western taste for well-foreshadowed plot twists and distaste for deux ex machina is at least partly based upon how much science has discovered about the world, including how planets work, the existence of atoms, and how to build complex technology. To some extent, the world is less mysterious than it once was, leading to a desire for stories that have thorough explanations. Readers expect to understand stories at a deeper level just as they now understand the world at a deeper level.

God gave us minds to study the world he created and marvel at its amazing complexity as we learn more and more about it, so there's nothing inherently problematic about wanting things to be thoroughly explained in stories. On the other hand, it's also true that the world remains far more mysterious than modern people like to think, especially regarding spiritual things, and there remains a need for stories that reflect this truth.

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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Fri Dec 04, 2015 12:28 pm 
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Both natural events and supernatural miracles are true and rational for Christians, so Christians are easily as rationalist as anyone else. The opposition to Christianity is Atheism, not rationalism. I don't think Christianity/Atheism has a true relation to deus ex machina.

I won't burden you guys with my digression on the subject of fiction conventions. :roll:


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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Fri Dec 04, 2015 9:48 pm 
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Mistress Kidh wrote:
I won't burden you guys with my digression on the subject of fiction conventions. :roll:

I'd like to hear about it. Though it may belong on its own thread. :D

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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Sat Dec 05, 2015 8:54 pm 
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Jonathan Garner wrote:
Mistress Kidh wrote:
I won't burden you guys with my digression on the subject of fiction conventions. :roll:

I'd like to hear about it. Though it may belong on its own thread. :D

Well, I will see if I can write up anything adequate for a new thread. :D


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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Sun Dec 06, 2015 8:58 pm 
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Great. :D

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 Post subject: Re: Plot Twists and Rationalism
PostPosted: Mon Dec 28, 2015 5:31 am 
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It's worth noting that what we think of as "rationalism" is itself an outgrowth of an explicitly Christian worldview. As noted, the ancient polytheist cultures believed themselves to be living in a cosmos ruled by many conflicting and capricious deities, who might themselves be subject to some mysterious laws or forces (having emerged from the cosmos), but who basically did as they willed, so there could be no single unchanging system of laws by which the cosmos operated. Christianity, by contrast, taught that the cosmos had been created by one preexistent omnipotent, omniscient, loving, and immutable God, who could not lie or fail to keep his word, and who told his people that he had created the world by wisdom, and so they looked for the natural laws by which the Supreme Legislator governed the world.

But when considering fantasy worldbuilding, what the above discussion calls "rationalist" I would rather call "mathematical," "quantifiable," or perhaps "discrete." I don't feel that Gandalf is ever a "deus ex machina"; Tolkien's worldbuilding rings so inescapably true that I feel I can trust that anything he says happened for good logical reasons, not because of the author's whim. On the other hand, even some explicitly and mathematically detailed "magic systems" feel more capricious than sound or true.

One way of putting my intuition is that I feel like I can trust that if I could ask Tolkien "why?" about any detail of the world that comes up in the story, I would get a (in Tolkien's case fairly extensive) in-universe answer. In a lot of other fantasy fiction, even with appendices full of tables, I feel like any "Why?" question that wasn't covered in the tables or the text would be answered either with something made up on the spot or with something that boiled down to "Because I said so" or "Because that was the only way the story could work."

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My blog includes the following "departments":
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