Deus Ex Machina: Latin for “Don’t Do This in Your Story”

By the time you reach the end of your story, you’re sometimes out of steam, sometimes out of ideas, sometimes sick of your story, and sometimes just plain wrong about how to end it. As a result, you might find yourself walking through the yellow caution tape into the pothole of deus ex machina before you realize the danger. “What is this deuced deus ex machina?” you ask. “It’s all Greek to me,” you say.

Well, actually, it’s Latin. If I wanted to get technical, I could explain that the phrase literally translates “god from a machine” and was originally a reference to the “god” (played by an actor lowered onto the stage on a “machine”) who descended at the end of the Greek and Roman plays to solve all the mortal characters’ problems and put everything in order for a happy ending. However, for our 21st-century English purposes, we could just say it translates “don’t do this in your story” and be just as accurate.

At first glance, deus ex machina—the idea of all the plot problems being fixed in one fell swoop—might seem like a pretty good idea. But the only thing deus ex machina is guaranteed to fix is your readers’ low opinion of your book. This plot device might have worked for the ancient Greeks and Romans (although Aristotle might—and did—argue that point), but for modern authors it presents a number of difficulties.

Deus ex machina robs…

…cohesiveness by introducing a new element at the eleventh hour. To reach full potential, every piece of your story must be part of a consistent whole. If the cavalry has no place in your western, the climax in which it charges in to save the pioneers won’t seem logical or resonant.

Deus ex machina frustrates…

…readers by taking the power out of the characters’ hands. Readers want to see the characters put under excruciating pressure, so they can then observe their reactions and, usually, their tenacity, skill, and courage in escaping and triumphing. When the damsel tied to the railway tracks is saved at the last minute by a handsome stranger, the heroine herself becomes a non-factor.

Deus ex machina endangers…

…suspension of disbelief through unlikely coincidences. Miracles may occasionally happen in real life, but in fiction they tend to make readers scoff. When your characters escape their mafia debts by winning the lottery or being adopted by a little old lady millionaire, the result is both unsatisfying and difficult to believe.

Deus ex machina cheats…

…readers by eliminating proper foreshadowing. In order to achieve resonance, stories need to provide all the puzzle pieces to the reader by the time he reaches the climax. The foreshadowing found in the character’s previous struggles will lead us up to the moment when he uses the lessons learned in those struggles to overcome this ultimate challenge. When he suddenly develops magical powers at the last moment, his escape from danger won’t be satisfying because it’s too different from the one readers expected.

Deus ex machina disappoints…

…readers by removing characters from danger too soon. After waiting for 300 pages to reach the climax, readers want to see the characters sweat. They want to see them pushed to the very brink of their physical, mental, and moral endurance—and then rise up from their own ashes to conquer both inner and outer demons. When the avenging angel swoops in to save the characters, the result is anticlimactic. Instead of thrilling readers, your ending is more likely to have them heaving your book across the room.

Deus ex machina comes in many different shapes, but once you learn how to look for it, you can squish it on sight and save your readers from wanting to think up uncomplimentary Latin translations.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a story that ended with deus ex machina?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you! I received some good advice about avoiding deus ex machina. Imagine taking all the nuts and bolts, the scenes of the story and all their components, characters, back story, dialogue, etc, and look at them hard. See if you can synthesize them together to form a solution to your present dilemma. If not, you will probably need to go write in a scene to set up for the conclusion. Great reminder. Thank you again!

  2. Yep. To be consistent and resonant, the finale needs to include as many of the previous elements as possible. And that is definitely even tougher than it sounds.

  3. LOL, I’m perpetually writing deus ex machina’s into my stories but fortunately I’m bright enough to see them and kill them (but not bright enough not to write them in the first place 😉
    Great post.

  4. Sometimes we just have to write things to get them out of our systems. I’m that way with character backstory info dumps. Write’ em and delete ’em. Write ’em and delete ’em.

  5. You are spot on! This device really annoys me as a readers. Which means it’s a good idea to avoid it as writers! But can be awfully tempting when we feel suck in a corner. Just goes to show that easy is rarely ever best when it comes to the world of writing.

    Thanks for the insight, K.M!

  6. I know! How great would it be if we could solve all our plot problems with a bolt of lightning and a Charlton Heston-esque voice from the sky. But, really, I don’t think we’d end up getting much more satisfaction from that than our readers do.

  7. It wasn’t until I wrote a fanfiction book that I figured out how to finish a book. You would call my ending deus ex machina, but I actually wrote the last chapter first. I had to take the characters from where they were to where I wanted them to be knowing all along that I was going to use the ending I chose. It was hinted at very early in the book, and alert readers would’ve caught the information. If they didn’t the first time around, they surely would in the second reading. For me, I can’t finish a book until I’ve seen the ending. Sooo I get the first chapter and the characters set then head to the ending. The rest can fit inside, and there will be small hints to where the story is heading. Not everyone likes a deus ex machina ending, but there are a few readers out there who do (probably the same ones who liked the movie Knowing). I have every intention of writing another novel with a similar ending, and it’s pre-planned, not a last-minute cop out.

  8. So long as the ending is foreshadowed, you’re probably safe, although I would suggest that if a reader has to read the book twice to catch the foreshadowing, it probably isn’t strong enough. Everything should click into place at the climax. Even if the reader didn’t consciously think about the foreshadowing *when* he read it, he should be able to remember it at the climax and go, “Oh, so that’s what that was all about!”

  9. Yes! The deus ex machina! I always think that Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation was the ultimate DEM. the writers could get the crew into any and all trouble and NO PROBLEM we’ll just have Data come along and save them because he doesn’t breathe/doesn’t eat/can’t be hurt/is as strong as ten men/etc.

  10. Haha! Great example. And it *almost* works, just because the character is a long-established part of the story.

  11. Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is the very worst case of this I’ve ever seen. Three fat novels, with the situation getting worse on every page, and, just as you’re starting to look at the diminishing wadge of pages in book 3 and thinking, “How the hell is he going to resolve all this in so little space?”, up pops the old deus and waves a magic wand.

    Despite this, it doesn’t seem to have done Hamilton’s career any harm.

  12. It’s amazing what popular authors can get away with. Just goes to show, you can break every rule in the book, so long as you’re brilliant – and sometimes when you’re not.

  13. Anonymous says

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

    One thing I’d add is that not all stories are about conflict and resolution. If your book is a black comedy with a downtrodden hero, then a deus ex machina ending might work in spite of the fact – or even because of the fact – that it renders his efforts arguably moot. I can’t think of an example, but I suspect a tongue-in-cheek deus ex machina could be used to create bathos, and work to humorous effect precisely because it is a big let down.

    Going back to more traditional story- and character-driven fiction, I think some deus ex machinas are worse than others. I think the least offensive are ones where we feel the protagonist has at least *earned* the assistance or indulgence by doing a great or noble act, which – even though it failed to secure victory in story terms – represents some kind of victory over the self, and the successful completion of an “inner journey”.

  14. Good points. We can always find at least one story that breaks every general rule. Comedy and satire tend to be able to break more rules than other genres. And I’ll definitely concur that there are varying degrees of offense offered by deus ex machina.

  15. It’s a great literary example but interestingly enough Deus Ex is also a story that is layered with a number of subtle twists and turns that all center on the manipulations of humanity. Kind of interesting how the concept was twisted.. great literary analysis.

  16. Actually, I’m not referring to any one story here – just the deus ex machina technique in general. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  17. How do you rate the ghosts at the end of Lord of the Rings from this point of view? I know they didn’t solve all the problems, but they were a pretty big help that seemed to make the humans deaths in the battles a bit pointless.

  18. What are your thoughts on miracles that don’t save the characters out of danger in one grand swoop, per se, but are believed, trusted God for, and foreshadowed? I’m a firm believer that Jesus is still in the miracle-working business, so a lot of that reflects in my writing and, hopefully, encourages readers to believe Him for big things. I definitely don’t want to make readers scoff, but I also don’t want the theology in my writings to make God out to be anything less than the Almighty He is. Do you have any thoughts about that?

    Madi

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Miracles, of any kind, only work in fiction if they are “the point”–in the sense that they are properly foreshadowed and built up to, and then paid off in a way that makes them matter beyond a simple and convenient way to move the plot. I’ve read more than one Christian novel that, in my opinion, severely weakened both its plot and theme by throwing miracles around too casually.

Trackbacks

  1. […] It’s basically Tip Number One to Cheat Your Way Out of Creating an Actual Plot. (Read this excellent post by K.M. Weiland talking about this further.) […]

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