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. Here’s a great podcast explaining how to make it work, with examples and more on what the god showing up actually means about the Greek protagonist. The author needs to do a lot of work before the god shows up.
    http://thewritingcast.com/blog/?p=184

  2. Thanks for sharing the link. I’ll be interested in the opposite viewpoint.

  3. Great post, K.M. All great points. Thanks for sharing the guidance.

    -Jimmy

  4. Glad you found it useful, James!

  5. Great post! I hope I’ve eliminated this problem by choosing to go along with the ending my characters said must take place. I guess I’ll let my critter and beta readers decide it they were right. 😉

  6. I can see how a weak ending can ruin a good story but I do like having all the threads neatly tied.

  7. @Lorna: Characters are almost always right!

    @Bella: It’s absolutely possible to tie off all the loose ends without resorting to a weak ending that puts the power of action into the hands of someone other than your main character.

    • Henry Tjernlund says

      Agreed. I’m tired of the hero’s journey ending where the hero pulls one last ultimate thing out of THEIR ass, which if it had been there then why didn’t they use that first? Nothing wrong with having the day saved by a higher power if it’s done well.

      Thus I disagree with this article.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        “Done well” equals “properly foreshadowed”–in which case it’s not deus ex machina at all. Actually, I think we could make the argument that what you’re talking about here–the unforeshadowed weapon or technique that the hero thinks of only at the last minute–is a form of deus ex machina in itself.

  8. Solving problems through an act of god, the guy desperate for money suddenly winning the lottery, or the baddie who has everybody beaten conveniently dropping dead from a heart attack, always feels hollow in fiction even though it would be an amazing thing in real life. It’s just too easy and if anyone could have solved the chracters’ difficulties, why would anyone want to read it?

    Very interesting post, cheers.

    mood
    Moody Writing
    @mooderino

  9. Problems solved through outside influences often feel like cheating. If all the character’s problem needed all along was a little pixie dust, why didn’t the author just sprinkle it at the beginning before putting his poor character through the ringer for no good reason? It’s not good logic. And readers, for all their creative whimsy, are very logical creatures.

  10. Oh, yes, I’ve realized this is the main issue with the second novel in my series. Yikes. At least I realized it before I uploaded it somewhere like Amazon. Why in the world didn’t that happen on page 200 instead of waiting till page 500. None of this bad stuff would’ve happened and my characters could’ve lived far happier lives. Yeah, it’s time to revise. Thanks for posting about this flaw, K.M.

  11. This is one of those whoopsies we often stick into stories without even realizing what we’ve done. Deus ex machina has a nasty habit of masquerading under the guise of innocent-looking plot twists. A good beta reader – even if he can’t call the flaw by name – can help us figure out when the ending isn’t satisfying.

  12. I think you are right about avoiding this kind of ending. I wonder about my own MS with this issue. It isn’t anything like winning the lottery, but at the last minute one of the MC’s changes course and does the one thing that she knows she isn’t “allowed” to do which solves the conflict. It could have had disastrous results, but ends up working. However that wasn’t the only conflict in the book, and not the only thing that gets solved, so it avoids the pixie dust question. It’s just so easy to write yourself into a corner and not know how to write your way out, lol. Great post!

  13. So long as you’ve foreshadowed “the one thing” your character ends up doing, you’re probably safe. The problems with that type of ending arise when the change in course comes out of the blue.

  14. This has come in a timely manner for me. The ending of my current WIP has thrown me. I thought I had it all worked out and now I’m having second thoughts on how to see it go through. There are too many choices and I am very indecisive. But one thing I am certainly not doing is leaving fate up to someone other than my MC. I hate those (above mentioned) endings as well. They rarely work. I think my own problem will come with lots and lots of revisions in loo of better prep work, creating more of an internal struggle for the MC so that its more clear what SHE has to overcome to succeed.

    huh…think I just solved my own problem right there =)

  15. Endings are second only to beginnings in toughness. I don’t think I’ve ever ended with one that didn’t take me at least three attempts to get it right in the first draft. And I always end by swearing that I’ll make sure I have fewer loose ends to tie off in the next book!

  16. Stephen King did this at the end of Needful Things. Instead of the characters finding a way to win, he let some completely out-of-left field thing defeat the antagonist in the most ridiculous way. It was a tiresome book to begin with and I only finished it to see how the conflict resolved. Total robbery.

  17. Many of my early stories are full of deus ex machina plotting, but in the books I’ve published, I made great use of foreshadowing to forestall the betrayal a reader would feel had I made no reference to it before.

    In several episodes of the Star Trek franchise, I see it a lot. A character whose fear of transporter accidents seems to be fulfilled, winds up being more confident about transporting when it’s over. Kirk’s overriding obsession to kill a monster sometimes has an illogical turnaround in the end: “Maybe you thought we were invading you.” Sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Facts of Life are notorious for this as well.

    If an author has to use miracles, make sure reasons for it are in place, such as the enemy’s disbelief in them, coupled with the hero’s plea to God for help. And they’re always subtle. No Red Sea parting, no flash of thunder, as in amateurish attempts. Just small things that can be interpreted in “natural” terms by unbelievers. Still, it’s good to not recommend it to beginning writers, as the temptation is too strong to make it an epic event.

    ~ VT

  18. I’m working on the last chapters of a rough draft right now. Even though I don’t have a god being lowered onto the stage, you’ve made me put some thought into what’s going on with my MC. Thank you!

  19. Great post! It’s quite odd really, we were always taught that it was a good thing in school. Guess they were lying.

  20. @cvwriter: Haven’t read that one – and don’t think I will now!

    @Victor: You make a good point. We tend to think of Miracles as capital-letter events. But, outside of the Old Testament, that’s rarely how they appear anymore. Sometimes the sunrise is a miracle. Sometimes a phone call is a miracle. Sometimes a jammed gun is a miracle.

    @VV: Yep, put on that old thinking cap. Never hurts to brainstorm half a dozen ideas for the conclusion, so you can then pick and choose the best one.

    @Aimee: Really? I’ve never run across deus ex machina being taught as a preferable thing. That’s a little disturbing.

  21. I can smell the writers from “Lost” burning already. Great post at usual K.M

  22. I haven’t gotten around to watching Lost yet, but, from what I’ve heard about the ending, it sounds like a prime example of this.

  23. Good post. To answer your question. Yes. My current effort. Need to rewrite the ending though because I recognise the problem. Thanks.

  24. Rewrites – what would we do without them? Glad the post was useful.

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