Following a few days of watching bad movies that each seemed to feature a deus ex machina moment, I decided today’s topic should be all about how we as writers can avoid them in our stories.
Originally this term meant “God from the Machine” and was in reference to when a “god” character in a play was lowered on stage via a cable device. The god was often brought in as a divine intervention for a situation that was unfixable.
The term has changed now and is used as a negative connotation to explain a sudden illogical plot twist used to completely alter a situation.
Sadly, this sort of thing happens in fiction, whereby someone or something is introduced into the plotline just to create a contrived solution to an unsolvable issue/conflict.
Why we don’t like them?
Having a Deus ex Machina (sometimes just referred to as Ex Machina or DEM) is not something you want to have in your novel.
Not only can it just ruin a perfectly good book, due to the random shift that occurs (making readers feel duped) but it also comes across that your plot is ill-structured and poorly planned.
This can lead to readers not feeling confident about your writing skill.
Hopeless is not negative
Weird sub-title I know, but let me clarify. Often a DEM is used because a situation is deemed hopeless.
Maybe a character is killed and even though it works perfectly for the story, the writer just decides they can’t allow it.
So bam, let’s throw in a sudden appearance ofa random character, never before referenced, who walks by carrying a “back from the dead” potion.
Nope. Let’s not.
There is nothing wrong with having a novel include or even end with a situation that is unsolvable. There is nothing wrong with there being a sense of hopelessness.
Sure it might not leave your readers feeling refreshed and exhilarated but that’s not the only feeling we can leave them with.
Deus ex Machina Requirements
How do you know if it’s a DEM?
Is there a sudden and unexpected plot twist in your novel? That’s okay but if it has not even been hinted at or had any foreshadowing/referencing earlier in the story – then you could be creating a DEM.
Is there a sudden resolution to a supposed unsolvable issue? Is the solution pretty illogical and completely baseless, coming out of the left field and leaving your readers going… WTF?
Has the solution come from a random character with very little or no influence on the storyline until they are suddenly needed right now?
Has “Chance” or “Fate” suddenly jumped in at the last second to fix the impossible?
Watch out for dreams
The use of “it was all a dream” concepts as an ending can often be a DEM.
They have a habit of coming out of nowhere and fixing all the problems that had originally been created.
Many writers use these if some of their characters have to die, such as during a war or a plague.
Unable to cope with losing characters they and their readers love, they throw in a “dream” and poof, everything is okay!
Stay out of the corners
DEM is often used when a writer has written themselves into a corner and can’t figure out how to get out of it.
Instead of looking over the plot and either making some changes that ripple ALL through the novel, they drop in a DEM often used to create a happy ending.