Six impossible things

Hack Writer’s Gambit

The other day, my walking buddy and I were discussing various bad-plotting mistakes made in various TV series, specifically the sort that used to be called “hack writer’s gambit.” I say “used to be called” because a quick series of googles found very little in the way of modern references for the term.

So I’m evidently going to have to start by defining the term, if I want to talk about it. Taking it in pieces: a hack writer was, back in the days of the pulp magazines, a writer who cranked out stories on demand, supposedly without regard to subject or quality. It’s a term you still hear, though not as often as in the past. “Gambit” is a strategy, technique, or ploy.

The hack writer’s gambit is a particularly bad ploy for getting oneself out of the corner one has written one’s hero into. It was especially common in the old serials (both in print and at the movies) where each episode but the last would end in a cliffhanger, often one that seemed to show the hero’s death. The next episode or segment would open with the same scene, but with an extra thirty seconds of footage or a paragraph that showed the hero diving off the boat seconds before the explosion destroyed it or slipping out of the handcuffs and escaping through the back door before the building was set on fire. Another example would be the previously unknown and unmentioned witness or relative who shows up at the very last minute to exonerate the hero(ine) or reveal the truth about the family secrets.

The classic example comes from Scott Meredith’s how-to-write book, Writing to Sell: A serial writer is contacted by his editors because the current installment of the series ends with Lance O’Neil in a pit with sides too steep to climb, sharp spikes moving in to crush him, and molten lead pouring in from a pipe in the ceiling. The editors aren’t sure the writer can get the hero out of the mess. The writer shrugs and hands them the next installment, which begins “With a mighty leap, Lance O’Neil sprang out of the pit.” (Meredith’s version is two pages long in the copy I have, and much more entertaining, but that’s the gist of it.)

Generally, the unexpected and unreasonably easy escape is immediately followed by a bunch of fast and furious action – chasing down the guys who blew up the ship, set the house on fire, or stuck Lance in the pit – to take the readers/viewers’ minds off just how outrageously they’ve been suckered. The only time this kind of thing actually works is in a parody, where the whole point is that one outrageous or unlikely or downright impossible thing after another keeps happening. If the story is sufficiently light and/or sufficiently action-centered, and getting out of the cliffhanger isn’t totally ridiculous (as it is in the Lance O’Neil example), the author can sometimes get away with it. Rarely.

These days, you don’t see many unlikely physical exploits – heroes making mighty leaps, or sneaking out past guards when we’ve already seen (we thought) that it didn’t happen that way. Readers and viewers expect more consistency and foreshadowing than that, and writers know it. If the hero makes a mighty leap out of a death trap, he has to have done similar feats in less dire circumstances before, so that the escape becomes a matter of the villain having totally underestimated the hero’s physical prowess, rather than the sudden revelation of an ability he’s never had before (unless, of course, the hero got bitten by a radioactive spider right before he was shoved into the pit, and the escape is as much a shock to him as to the reader).

What you do see are other sorts of unlikely rabbits being pulled out of hats. The villain gloats that he’s erased the critical data on the hero’s computer so thoroughly that it is unrecoverable – and then someone conveniently shows up with a new bit of software that can magically recover the data anyway, just in the nick of time. Or a previously unknown and unmentioned hacker has a fit of conscience for no particular reason and turns up with the data he stole from the hero’s computer just before the villain wiped it. Or a character who’s been dead for two seasons or eighteen chapters turns out to have set up a secret backup system that is still running, even though she hasn’t been around to maintain it.

When this kind of thing happens in a television series, it is sometimes understandable. Often, the logical place to plant the information about the software or the hacker or the backup system was several episodes prior to the one in which it becomes necessary to pull the hero out of the swamp, and by the time the writers need it, it’s too late to plant it. (That’s the problem with serials in general, really – they take a lot more careful planning than one may realize in the early stages.) When you have something like this happening between the front and back cover of a single book, there’s really no excuse for it. Yes, it’s a lot of work to go back and find places to plan the hacker or the software guy and his project or the secret backup system, but if you ever thought writing was not going to be a lot of work, you really ought to have gotten over the idea by the time you got to the end of your first draft and realized you needed some plot handwaving to get your hero out of whatever hole you’d written him into. Heck, that’s half the reason why there are second drafts in the first place – so the writer can get the reader out of some corner without having to leave obvious footprints all over the fresh paint on the floor.

  1. I feel like this happens in those epic fantasy series a lot. You get into a situation where the Hero is in dire straits, facing a much more powerful enemy, and then, all of a sudden, his deeply hidden magical powers emerge, in just the right way, to defeat the villain and save the day.
    Hold Me Closer, Necromancer committed a variety of sins, but at least the hero’s awesome powers managed to emerge at an inconvenient moment and only got him into more trouble. The rest of the series of implausible events that ended in him being rescued and defeating the villain though… They were a pretty textbook example of shoehorning.

  2. That kind of ending is referred to as deus ex machina, or at least I think that’s what you’re talking about, which is Latin for “the god in the machine.”
    Every writer must use it to some point: it wouldn’t do for the heroes to be confident they would win, because then the story won’t engage the reader well. And most stories have to have happy endings anyway.
    I think you’re right that writers have to be more careful about it these days. Even Tolkien is guilty of it, in my opinion. At the end of The Two Towers, Frodo has been captured by the orcs and held in their watchtower. There looks like there is no escape, but I know they will, which kind of ruined that bit of action for me.

  3. @ Katya

    I think Deus ex Machina usually refers outside forces coming in out of nowhere to solve the unsolvable problems. It’s a different technique than providing the hero with a sudden implausible ability to get him out of a problematic situation. (It’s actually ‘the god from/out of the machine’ and refers to the common practice in greek plays to have the gods be lowered down onto the stage to tie up the end of the play.)

    The question of maintaining tension when the reader is pretty sure the heroes are going to win is a different problem entirely. It’s why I usually avoid good vs. evil books. Either good will win, which is boring, or there will be a twist ending and evil will win, also boring. Moral ambiguity is much more interesting.

  4. Various of these gambits are discussed by the characters in RAH’s The Rolling Stones aka Space Family Stone.

    Search “Galactic Overload” if you have Baen’s eBook or try, eg, ch VIII where I liked the ploy of the hero being modest when telling his GF how he got free.

    Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames

  5. I thought “deus ex machina” referred to unlikely endings in which the author anticlimactically saves the characters from “certain” death in general, not just those in which new characters are invented to save the characters. Maybe you’re right…
    The words themselves are Latin, though, although you’re right it came from Greek plays.

  6. @Mike D. They should probably search for “Galactic Overlord” rather than “Galactic Overload”. (Just hate those typos. 🙂 )
    That was a really fun book, though.

  7. I rather hate it when this thing appears on a TV show. Like a 6-toed statue appears which is crucial to the mystery but the (hack) writers can’t figure out what to do so they conveniently ignore this.
    Hacking on the Internet is famously part of this.
    One cannot count the number of times the police or NCIS people break into secure computers on the net, or break encryption.
    It nice of you to bring this to mind, Pat.

  8. I recall something like that happening in the middle of one of the Scorpio/Kregan books, by Alan Burt Akers/Dray Prescot/whateverhisrealnamewasIforget — the supposed transcriber of the tapes talks about some “horrible noise” at the end of one tape where Dray’s been thrown into a Horrible Monster Pit, and then the next tape takes up with background noises of a cheerful tavern-type place, to the “transcriber’s” consternation.

    That series also had a footnoted “Happened in Book TitleMumble,” and there was no book entitled TitleMumble.

    I think the author was having some fun with people, though more like “easter eggs” than parody.

  9. I believe that’s now called Cliffhanger Copout, and I do have to laugh at how often this is still used in shows – sometimes just for a commercial break.

  10. Reminds me of the first season of the Walking Dead. Rick had found a grenade in the first or second episode, forgot about it for the entire season, and then a character from the group hands it to him saying she found it when she washed his shirt just when they need an explosive in the very last episode. It’s establishing a precedent that’s the key to getting the reader to swallow it. Walking Dead came close, except after he found the grenade and then lost it, Rick never once wondered what had happened to it, to the degree that the viewer didn’t know he’d even lost the darn thing. Had that been addressed in the season, I might’ve rolled my eyes a bit less when the grenade made its anticlimactic reappearance. Still, unless there’s some sort of character interaction going on to deepen the story, using a deus ex machina to solve the immediate problem, even one given strong precedent, feels a bit cheap.

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