Monday, July 23, 2012

The Difference Beween The Kindness of Strangers and Deus Ex Machina.

"Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." - Blanche speaking to the Doctor, A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 11, Tennessee Williams.

While Blanche's statement to the doctor as she's being taken to the insane asylum is tragic in Streetcar, at some point we all find ourselves relying on the kindness of strangers. For me, the most recent occurrence happened one morning while I was rushing to court. Instead of going out the front door of my house like I'd planned, I left through the garage. This meant I missed seeing my suit jacket, which was hanging on the banister by . . . you guessed it, the front door. Halfway to court I realized my error. And just how screwed I was.

Now, I live at least an hour from most of the courts I appear before, and generally this means I plan for just these emergencies. I usually have a spare set of heels and a blazer in my car. Unfortunately, for this time when those items could have come in handy, I'd left the back-up blazer at the office, and hadn't put a new blazer (you know, that one on the banister) in the car.

My Cousin Vinny taught us the importance of being properly dressed for court.  How big the transgretion is depends on your judge. The reaction can run from mild disapproval and a related ding on your reputation for being disorganized to a contempt citation and a fineI wouldn't know my judge until I showed up. Too late. So, in true Vinny style, I called every clothing store I could think of between where I'd realized my gaff and the courthouse.

Consignment Boutique? Opens on noon on Mondays. Did I mention this was a Monday?
Leesburg Outlet Mall? Opens at 10. Court starts at 10 - no good.
Lou Lou, a small boutique in historic Leesburg? Also opens at 10,
It's now 9:15 am. ACK!

Worse, I still needed to get my attorney's fee affidavit notarized by the Clerk of the Court. Without the affidavit, my client doesn't get an attorney's fee award. Expecting at least a tongue-lashing from the Court for being so casual, I scurried into the courthouse.

Here's where we pause from some back story. By and large, the court clerks in Virginia (and, in fact, in most courts I've appeared over the last 18 years) are fabulous and helpful people. If you aren't a jerk to them, the clerks will often go far above the call of duty to help you.  That Monday was no exception.

Repeating to myself, "being needy doesn't make me special" and "my emergency isn't theirs," I tried not vibrating to pieces while I was in three different lines to get to the notary.

The clerk sensed my anxiety - probably because I was shifting from foot to foot - and asked if there was anything else she could do.

I said, "No thank you, I'm just going to be yelled at by the judge for forgetting my blazer, and not looking forward to it."

Without missing a beat, she asked, "Do you want to borrow my sweater?"

The sweater was black and cut a lot like a blazer. I may have hugged her. After assuring her I'd bring it back after court, I rushed to my courtroom (2B - no kidding).

I sat in the courtroom, still under-dressed and surrounded by a cloud of another woman's perfume.  Anxiety chewed on me The butterflies in my stomach and light-headedness rivaled those from my very first court appearance 18 years earlier. I debated apologizing for not having a blazer and the benefits of keeping my big mouth shut.

Court does not work like it does on television. Most days, there are a number of cases for the court to deal with, and she calls them one at a time. This means a lot of waiting. My case was, of course, called last.

After forty minutes of agony, I was the only attorney left in the galley. The judge finally called my case. I didn't get yelled at. Giddy, I practically skipped back to the Clerk's Office to return the sweater. After thanking the clerk, humbly, profusely and without reservation, I left the courthouse.

So, why do I mention my personal crisis on this writing blog other than as a "thank you" to the clerk in question? Because random acts of kindness happen. When we use those moments well in our writing, the reader believe that events could happen in just that way. If done poorly, the reader rejects them (and our story).

Did you believe my story about the missing blazer? Hopefully, that answer is yes, since it actually happened about a month ago. Would you have believed it if I hadn't stopped to tell you how amazingly helpful the Clerks are? Also, true by the way. But without that detail, the back story to set up why that particular clerk might have helped me,  you probably wouldn't have believed me.

There's a reason why common writing wisdom says if you need a gun on the mantelpiece in last scene, you better show it being  placed there in the first few scenes. The reader needs to believe the coincidence is plausible. If you don't properly establish the possibility or motivation or predisposition, your reader will cry "deus ex machina" and  reject the "twist."

When writing make sure you take the time to set up the random act of kindness. The ground work could be as little as adding a line or two, or you might need a scene. In a fictional version of the blazer incident, the character, while waiting in line, would think about all the times a clerk had saved her from making a mistake, and lament that this wasn't a mistake a clerk could fix. That little bit of back story makes the loan of the sweater credible. (In my fictionalized story, by the way, it would have been a blazer that the clerk loaned the MC.)

If your story has a random act of kindness, you should ask yourself if you've told the reader everything she needs to believe in it. 

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