This year, in preparation for Purim, I’ve been rereading the megillah at a class given by my LOR (local Orthodox rabbi). Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve read The Book of Esther, as it’s called in English. We do that every year on Purim–twice! And it’s also not the first time I’ve learned it with this particular rabbi. But it is the first time I’ve read it with commentary, guided by my rabbi, since I officially became an author (whatever that means). And boy, is there a difference.
The Big Literary No-No All Over the Megillah
When you’re writing fiction, there is a big no-no that you’re told never to do: rely on deus ex machina. In short: don’t get your characters out of a tight corner by dropping a deity down from the sky to perform an instantaneous rescue. The audience will roll their eyes, at best.
The term originated with actors playing deities in the theaters of Greece. But for a religious writer of a different persuasion in the 21st century, it causes problems. Why? Because a believing person thinks that even in real life, rescues can come in the blink of the eye. And yes, they all have a divine origin.
See my problem?
G-d in the Writing of Believers
Thus, when I’m writing a story, I want to show G-d runs the world. But I don’t want the audience to roll their eyes at me because Of Course G-d saved the hero and Of Course it came at the last minute and Of Course they just sat through pages and pages of the hero’s struggle for no good reason at all!
What ends up usually happening in my own fiction is that I make the conflict of the story center on a problem other than “Will the Hero Succeed?” He’s going to succeed or not, but it won’t be the hero’s doing anyway, so who cares? My job: make the audience care. The story will instead center on the character’s inner conflict and growth, for example. Or we know the hero will be saved from his problem, but when, where, why, and how?
Literary Lessons from The Book of Esther
Back to the megillah: It might be a true story, but we have a dramatic set up. Mordechai and Esther and the entire Jewish population are at risk of destruction at the hands of the evil Haman, descendant of King Agag, who had been wrongly spared by Mordechai and Esther’s ancestor, King Shaul. Will they be saved and thus rectify their ancestor’s errors?
Well, of course they’ll be saved! We read this story every year at a holiday established by them in gratitude for their rescue!
Kinda saps the suspense, doesn’t it? Or does it?
How to make G-d save the day in your story without boring the audience:
1) We know the ending will be in G-d’s hands, but what defining choices will the people in the story make? Let readers engage with human struggles with which they can identify.
2) Layer the meaning in the story so readers can delve into its rich texture again and again. (By the way, in case you have never read The Book of Esther with commentary, I highly recommend it. I think my rabbi uses the Gemara, the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, and maybe the Malbim, but there are other great ones. These commentaries flip a lot of conventional ideas about Esther and about the holiday of Purim on their heads. No, Esther did not want to be queen. No, she wasn’t young, and she wasn’t beautiful in the regular sense of the word. Vashti wasn’t being modest when she refused to come. She’d sprouted a rash and a tail–explaining a common Purim costume that mystifies many.)
3) Add lots of twists and turns. Push your heroes into a corner, then push them deeper into it. Readers will think to themselves, “They’ve got to win, but how? Especially after…and…and…?”
4) G-d runs the world. He’ll save you…but from the shadows. Make sure you give humans the role of fulfilling G-d’s plans. Let readers decide that G-d planned the whole thing out.
And the most important:
4) Use lots of foreshadowing. When you look at the ending of the megillah, you can go back and track all sorts of details to earlier scenes. This makes the rescue not drop out of nowhere, as in a literal deus ex machina.