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I wrote a novel called Animal Suicide. It's a mix of romance and dark humor. It's about a girl who, after a weird incident, postpones a pill overdose and starts researching about the topic of animal suicide (sorry for repeating this on the site, but it's to make the question clearer).

The "universe" of this novel is set in real life, but, like in many humorous stories, it has its own crazy phenomena. For instance, Li-Mei, the protagonist, encounters two kinds of people: those who think that animal suicide is a crazy/taboo topic and those who are actively researching it. So, she eventually stumbles into an Animal Suicide Club and a lady who has been obsessed with animal suicide since childhood.

Everything is OK. But here's the problem: readers think that having Li-Mei find people who are interested in animal suicide is too convenient, kind of like deus-ex-machina.

So, I don't know what to do. Should I just remove all these deus-ex-machina? Or find a way to make them more "agreeable"?

EDIT (based on Lauren's answer):

Detailed example: At the animal behavior class, Li-Mei is laughed at for asking about animal suicide. That's how the founder of the Animal Suicide Club (who's in the class) finds her. Is this still deus-ex-machina?

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    A person interested in a topic will naturally stumble upon people linked with it. This is because a) we normally filter out things we are not interested in and will simply not notice if people have a link to something we have no interest to, b) pursuing any interest will naturally draw you to the same circumstances where other people with same interest have migrated to. I presume the "deus ex machina" here simply means she runs to these people without you giving any explanation of how she does it. Supply some -> no problem. You can use a) and b) above as starting points. – Ville Niemi Jun 18 '15 at 16:20
  • @Ville Niemi You mean something like my EDIT? Or maybe that's not enough? – Alexandro Chen Jun 18 '15 at 18:03
  • I think the comments to Lauren's answer cover this. – Ville Niemi Jun 19 '15 at 0:00
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    Stumbling upon The Founder in the flesh is Deus Ex Machina. Make that an ordinary member of the group and it gets more plausible; especially if more such groups worldwide exist (and stay in contact with each other), and the people interested are not nearly as uncommon as one would think; finding one in an animal psychology class is not too unusual. If you want to make it even less of deus ex machina, have one of members of the group tell Li-Mei he has an acquaintance who was asking about that. Contacted, said person appears to be a member, who introduces Li-Mei into the club. – SF. Jun 19 '15 at 14:10
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If Li-Mei gets laughed at the Animal Behaviour class and gets attention of the founder and if all of this happens right before the first act ends or the first 20-22% of the novel which sets her story goal and the story question, it's not a Deus ex Machina.

If it doesn't happen in the first act and happens elsewhere and entering the club is crucial for the story to move forward, it is a Deus ex Machina and you should remove coincidences and make her work for it.

Why it's not deus ex machina if it happens on the first 20-22% and not if it happens after?

Because it sets the story goal when in 1st act. That scene (and other scenes in the 1st act) will aid her or give motivation to solve the story question too. Elsewhere, it becomes a coincidence to move the story forward for which she will have to work for the course of the novel.

A deus ex machina happens when the writer has gone to deep and generated so many conflicts that even he doesn't know how the protagonist will find a way out. So, the writer comes up with a sudden coincidence which fixes things and moves the story forward keeping the protagonist's motivation intact.

The scene in the first act will lead her towards finding motivation. That's why it's not a deus ex machina in the first act. (It's more in the lines of being an inciting incident. Inciting incidents usually sets the protagonist towards the end of the first act where he/she must make a decision which again leads to having motivation and sets story goal and all. Coincidences are fine when it comes to inciting incidents. More about inciting incident here and here.)

If the scene is in the second act or elsewhere, she already has the motivation and her goals set - she's running after something. Maybe the plot requires her to meet with the club founder. Which means it's a link making her move closer to completing the story goal. And if that link is 'given' to her by a coincidence, it becomes a deus ex machina.

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In real life people interested in the same thing do eventually find each other. This is especially true in the age of the internet, as is demonstrated by this very forum, but was true even before then. It's a standing joke among scientists, academics, and students writing dissertations that however obscure the subject of your research, you will find some other person has taken out the most relevant book from the library!

Anyone deeply interested in animal suicide would be likely to go to where they could learn more about it. That place is an animal behaviour course. If you think that's still too unlikely given the presumably low proportion of people who are interested in animal suicide as a subset of people interested in general animal behaviour, say that the club founder has been going to relevant courses for years precisely because she is always searching for other people who share her obsession.

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As Ville Niemi comments above, the simplest way to make this not a coincidence is to have your protagonist do some work to find these people.

In fact, I can't imagine how she could casually stumble over something called an Animal Suicide Club. It's the "Club" part which requires the work. Animal suicide researchers, yes, you'd probably find those without an enormous amount of Googling. But a club? People who make investigating animal suicides a hobby? You aren't going to see that posted on a flier at the local coffee shop. Other than at a veeeeeeery outré small liberal arts college, this is a group of people who will be weird even to the animal psychologists studying this behavior for a living. She's going to have to go looking for them — hear rumors, get slapped down by researchers who think the club is full of dangerous idiots and don't want her involved, warned off by ex-members, that sort of thing. Finding the club should be a significant obstacle in itself.

  • Well, the opposite happens. She is laughed at at the animal behavior class for asking about animal suicide. That's how a member of the club (who is in the class) finds her. Do you think that works? Or it's still deux-ex-machina? – Alexandro Chen Jun 18 '15 at 17:56
  • @AlexandroChen It sounds plenty plausible to me. At least as long as the member has a very concrete reason for being there. Then again, what sounds fine to me may not sound fine to anyone else. Hence the comment rather than an answer. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 18 '15 at 18:33
  • Another possibility: Reverse the cause-and-effect. Li-Mei stumbles across the group, and that is what convinces her to postpone her suicide, setting the story in motion. This, of course, may or may not fit with the story you have in mind. But readers are often more willing to accept coincidences that trigger the story (or that make the problem worse) than coincidences that solve the problem. – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 18 '15 at 20:10
  • @AlexandroChen Two things: 1) It's deus with an S, from the Greek for god. 2) Deus ex machina means "god in the machine." It's a specific term from classic Greek tragedy, when a god character would descend from the roof at the end of a play inside a mechanical box to rescue the heroes from an otherwise hopeless situation. Having your ASC member be in Li-Mei's class could be either too convenient or a contrivance. It's happening at the beginning of the story and puts events in motion. It's not really a deus ex machina. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 18 '15 at 22:24
  • @AlexandroChen That having been said, if you are setting up a convincing reason for the ASC club member to be in the class, then while it might be convenient, it's not necessarily a contrivance (where someone is arbitrarily somewhere for the sake of the plot, not because s/he has an organic reason to be there). So if your ASC person is a rounded character with reason to be in the class, I think you're okay. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 18 '15 at 22:26
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Considering the club Li-Mei "stumbles into" consists of only two people, one of them absent half the time, and the club's founder is in the animal behavior class for the same reason as her - because it's the most likely place to learn about the topic - I'd say it's perfectly reasonable to have them meet that way. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense.

However, when he first approaches her, none of that is obvious to the reader. In fact, the way he introduces the club comes across as not exactly humble, probably causing readers to assume it's a lot bigger and more organized than it actually is.

You do, however, already point out Li-Mei's doubts, so my recommendation would be to just expand on that a bit. Let her make up an alternate explanation (e.g. Could this be a prank, targeted at her specifically?), perhaps let her mull it over for a while before she decides to take a look. When she finds out there's only two other members, make it clear how she feels about that - is she disappointed? Does her suspicion flare up again?

  • Thanks, but wait a minute, how do you know so much about the story? Ha. – Alexandro Chen Jun 19 '15 at 8:16
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    You've posted a link to it in one of your previous questions. – Shae Jun 19 '15 at 8:22
  • Oh, I see. I thought no one in this site would read it. – Alexandro Chen Jun 19 '15 at 8:35
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A rule of thumb: A good coincidence gets the character into trouble. A bad coincidence gets the character out of trouble.

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This doubles as an answer to your other question, How to make the reader "accept" absurdity?

Some books strive for the appearance of realism, others don't. In either case, what is most important is a) that the book follows its own rules and b) that it has a sense of emotional reality.

For instance, some books are built entirely on frameworks of improbable coincidence: Douglas Adams' books, for example, as well as Murakami's. That's part of the fabric of the work. Once the reader accepts that, it becomes just a part of the story.

However, all the coincidences in Adams and Murakami rarely work to solve problems for the characters --or if they do, they just as often create new ones. This matches the emotional reality that we have to work for the things we get. If your character has worked hard enough for his or her reward, the reader is more likely to accept it, even if the actual mechanism is improbable.

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As others have said, people tend to notice others with common interests, and they tend to go to places where people with common interests are likely to go.

Suppose you are really interested in, say, Amish furniture. You are driving down the street and you see an Amish furniture store. Is that a bizarre coincidence. Probably not. In your drive you passed dozens, maybe hundreds of stores selling many different products. You noticed the one that interested you. If someone asked me if there are stores in my home town that sell golf clubs I'd have no idea, because I've never played golf and have no interest in golf. I might pass such a store every day and I wouldn't notice, because I don't care.

Suppose you said that a character loves cherry pie, and so he regularly goes to a bakery called "Fruit Pie Palace", and there he meets someone else who loves cherry pie. That wouldn't be strange or a bizarre coincidence. That would be exactly the sort of place you'd expect to go to meet such a person, and exactly the sort of person you'd expect to meet at such a place.

In your example, I'd expect someone interested in animal suicide might show up at a class in animal psychology. That doesn't seem strange or a coincidence at all. If you said that she took a class in French poetry or auto mechanics and met someone there interested in animal suicide, that would be more of a stretch. But I'd think that just saying that this is a class in animal psychology makes it not a surprising meeting.

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