In this post, I want to discuss why you shouldn’t resort to “Deus Ex Machina” when you’re trying to solve a conflict in a story. As I have occasionally made that mistake and learned how to avoid it, I think you can take advantage of my experience and advice.
The origin of the term “Deus Ex Machina” dates back to the theatre in Ancient Greece when at the end of a play, one of the Olympic gods was hanging from a crane in order to solve the characters’ conflicts and give an end to the story. With their belief system at that time, this method for sorting things out was more or less justified, but the readers of today won’t easily accept divine intervention.
What is “Deus Ex Machina?”
“Deus Ex Machina” is a way to solve the conflicts in the plot by means of an outside character or element that hasn’t appeared in the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic.
For example, imagine I told you a drama about a woman with family-related problems. The situation gets worse and worse until, all of a sudden, a character with magical powers solves everything. How would you feel about that? Wouldn’t you think I’m kidding?
No matter if we’re talking about novels or about movies, I like to think of fiction as a game in which some rules must be set at the beginning of the story. The readers accept these rules with only one condition: the writer must respect them too.
In fiction, nothing is more frustrating than realizing the author has taken a shortcut to solve one the conflicts in the story. You feel cheated. This is why you should be careful with “Deus Ex Machina,” or you’ll run the risk of deceiving your readers.
Does “Deus Ex Machina” always refer to the supernatural?
Not necessarily. Although the expression keeps the word “god” in honor of its origin, its meaning can be applied to worldly, real-life elements. It can refer to something as simple as a character who comes out of nowhere or the army that appears suddenly and without notice with the mission of saving the world. It can even refer to a fortuitous accident thanks to which the plot is resolved.
Let’s imagine a crime novel in which the protagonist, a detective, spent the whole story chasing after a series of clues. Towards the end, he discovered by chance (without having to tie up any loose ends) that the murderer is a neighbor of the victim, a character that hasn’t even been mentioned in the story. Although this situation can happen in real life, in fiction, it’s annoying that the writer doesn’t respect the logic of the plot.
How do you detect it in time?
Although it’s not always easy to be aware of them, sometimes there are clues that let you know you’re heading towards a “Deus Ex Machina” resolution. The best technique to stop this process is to pose a couple of questions to yourself about the plot.
1. Are you complicating things too much? If you’re adding conflict and drama to your plot just for the sake of keeping the attention of your readers but you don’t know how to disentangle it, there may come a time when you feel “Deus Ex Machina” is the only solution you have left.
2. Is the end of the story clear in your mind? If you haven’t decided in advance how your plot (or plots, if you’ve created more than one) is going to be solved, you may reach that point of no return where there’s no more option other than “Deus Ex Machina.” So, take your time and plan the storyline even when your plan just consists of jotting down a general outline.
What do you do when “Deus Ex Machina” seems like the only solution?
What happens when you discover you’ve already created a storyline that can only be solved by the intervention of an external element? What can you do about it? Can your story still be plausible?
Consider this good piece of advice by Chekhov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, it absolutely must go off in the second or third chapter. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
“Deus Ex Machina” is just the opposite; it amounts to shooting a gun in the last chapter without having even mentioned it once. The best method to avoid “Deus Ex Machina” is to introduce the metaphorical gun (the external element that will solve the plot at the end of the story) in the first chapter. Let’s see how …
1. Rewrite the rules of the game. If you’ve noticed that a stroke of luck is the best way to solve your plot, change the rules of your narrative universe (the ones you established in the first pages of the story) and make chance be a logical element from the beginning.
2. Let your “gun” have its place in the story. For example, in the crime novel I referenced above, the murderer (the upstairs neighbor) could have been introduced to the readers in a previous subplot. He might have met the detective on the stairs, talked to him, and given him a red herring; the detective might have suspected him but then ruled out that possibility. All of these ideas are good if they serve the purpose of avoiding “Deus Ex Machina.” In other words, they work well if they help your readers feel surprised instead of cheated.
In any case, you have to write subtlety for this method to work. If you put too much emphasis on the neighbor the first time he appears on the scene, your readers will identify him as the murderer and won’t be surprised by the end. A good writer must also be a great magician. Although your readers know you’re using tricks, they shouldn’t know where the magic lies, or the story will not work as it needs to.