Not the Roomba in the story--its cousin, maybe?

My landlord and landlady are letting me use their spare Roomba so I can keep the upstairs floor clean without scratching it up. (They've only lived here a few months, and we all think the floor is vinyl and not actual hardwood, but we're not taking any chances.) Last night, I tried it for the first time.

To free up cupboard space for a future roommate, I've set up a wire shelving unit to hold some of my bulkier/frequently used items, such as cereal, my Instant Pot, and so on. The bottom shelf is so close to the floor that I figured the Roomba would be too big to fit underneath it.

But last night, the Roomba somehow did it anyway. And then it couldn't figure out how to get back out. 🤔 I had to lift up the shelving unit to set it free.

Between that and my phone's random inability to follow my voice commands, I'm not too worried about AI taking over the world just yet. 

In our stories, our characters often find themselves in similar difficulties. They get themselves into sticky situations but don't know how to get out of them. Many amateur writers use a technique called deus ex machina (literally, "god from the machine") to solve these problems: some powerful outside force or a coincidence suddenly intervenes and saves the day. (IIRC, the term comes from historical plays in which stage machinery would lower the actor playing a god onto the scene to set things right.) 

The problem with deus ex machina? To paraphrase something I heard a long time ago, "Bad luck to get characters into trouble is fine. Good luck to get them out of trouble is cheating."

Unlike my Roomba's predicament, most human problems don't get solved by someone swooping in and fixing everything, so this solution feels extremely unrealistic. It's also far less satisfying to have someone else get the protagonist out of trouble than to have the protagonist figure it out themselves. After all, stories are ultimately about growth and change. Being saved by another person means the protagonist doesn't need to grow or change. And why would anyone want to read about a character who's exactly the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning? That's just boring. (In fact, one of Blake Snyder's books—I can't remember which—says that the inability or refusal to change is what makes a character a villain.)

Write on,


(Thanks to Jan Antonin Kolar for sharing their work on Unsplash.)