Deus Ex Machina (day-us ex mack-eena) is when a tangled or unsolvable plot is solved through outside forces through no action by the protagonists. You have a crummy ending and you’ve written yourself into a hole. This hole has slanted walls made of ice and your shoddy storytelling has rubbed oil into your hands.

So now if you simply made the gods favor the hero, and everything was all happy and such. Or some magical wizard comes into play with a new magic power that hasn’t been used in eons to save the day, and it conveniently fits your predicament. This ending sucked. And will suck no matter how you skew it. It tells the reader they wasted their time going through the story, and you obviously couldn’t come up with an ending worthy enough.

As SlyShy aptly puts it:

If your protagonists are suddenly saved by the cavalry charging over the hill to save them this is not Deus Ex Machina if: your characters did a whole lot of work to win over the cavalry to their side earlier in the story, or they arranged scouting along their path so the cavalry would meet them deliberately, or anything as long as your characters worked. Deus Ex Machina is when this previously unmentioned group of shining knights emerges over the horizon to vanquish the evil that was troubling you.

Deus Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily have to be in the end. It can be something that eliminates the flaws of a character, flaws that would render him incapable in the climactic ending. This is more attached to Mary Sue-ism, but is still something you should watch out for. Your character should have flaws throughout the story.

I’ll use the Epistler and Paolini as an example here: In the beginning of Eldest, Eragon seems more like realistic person. He has an incurable scar on his back, which makes him have seizures daily, which leave him weak and helpless. He begins to doubt himself quite frequently. While this is part of his selfish whining, it also shows more of Eragon as a person with flaws.

But of course, Eragon is soon magically cured by the ‘power of the dragons’ in the “Deus ex Machina Ceremony” noted by the Fifth Epistle. So now, Eragon is magically healed, and more powerful and even beautiful than before. Now, you might feel sympathy for Eragon because he endured so much torment, but that’s if you really care for Eragon.

The Blood-Oath Celebration acts as Deus Ex Machina, of sorts. If Eragon had actually worked for it, and learned to deal with the pain or even possibly discover a cure, things might be more believable. Then he could have become stronger and more magically powerful, and be at the same status he is right now.

So, on to avoiding Deus Ex Machina. You can avoid having to use it by not writing large holes into your plot that you can’t cover. While adding an element of mystery can enrich a story, if you don’t come up with a plausible solution, you’ve wasted your time. If you need your tangled plot to be solved miraculously, hint at the existence of the solution earlier in the story. If your hint is memorable or too close to the ending, the reader will see what’s coming. But when it does happen, the reader will be able to accept it because he remembers seeing it earlier.

“It was the right thing to do.” Rarely do people ever do things on a whim, especially if it doesn’t give anything in return. If you have unexpected persons saving the day, they had better had a good reason. If you create side characters with one purpose to save the day, they’ll have no reason to be in the story than to simply save the plot. When you set them up to save it, the reader will be able to tell what is coming.

Another thing that bugs people about Inheritance is the magic system written into it. Many times a lot of things could be done with the use of magic. Paolini created magical stuff to spur the story and plot, then forgot about them. Feeble and vague excuses are given, and you never hear about them again. So if your characters are stuck doing things the hard way, but the reader can simply see the easier way out, take it. It makes your characters more realistic. If you have your characters do things the way you want them, the storyline will feel forced and as if you’re watching a ventriloquist act. All humans are lazy by nature, and no one willingly does hard work for no reason whatsoever.

Don’t use destiny or fate to give your protagonists special powers in the ending. He/she can get powers throughout the plot, and if they use it to defeat the villain, then it’s fine. Prophecies, if given at/near the beginning, do not fall under a Deus Ex Machina. If you keep hinting at a prophecy throughout the plot, and then you finally reveal what it says near the end and it fixes the problems… is technically not Deus Ex Machina. But it will have the same feeling to it.

Oh, the weather. How unpredictable. No one, could ever see what exactly was about to happen with the Earth, so it’s the perfect thing! While my character is in the inescapable jail atop Mt. Terror on the island Evil, surrounded by the waters of Nasty Editors Who Don’t Accept Your Manuscripts, I’ll have an earthquake crack a wall into the jail, the protagonist find a snowboard in the guard’s office, so he can snowboard down the mountain, and a tidal wave so he can surf to the safety of his beloved.

Weather is unpredictable, and most of us complain about it constantly. Don’t use it to save everyone in the nick of time. In fact, it seems more realistic if the weather works against your protagonists. You truly notice the weather if it’s really bad and giving you problems, or it’s suddenly gone the opposite from the day before. If you have to have weather play a part, make it so slight it just barely gives the protagonist the upper hand. He might be modest enough to acknowledge it wasn’t all him.

If you do get into a corner, let things happen without using Deus Ex Machina. If your main character dies, let him die, it will feels more natural, and you won’t break any of the rules to your story. Of course, if your main character does die, and you can’t possibly allow that to happen, you might consider putting him through the Mary Sue Litmus Test to be sure you haven’t got a self-insert running around. When planning your story, consider the possibility of your character(s) dying, and how other characters react. This can be a great opportunity to build the personality of the deceased and the living. If the actions of your characters surprise and turn in different ways, expect the reader to be equally, if not more surprised than you are.

Deus Ex Machina can be used, but it works better in a comedic or satirical setting, and shouldn’t be used for a dramatic effect. Even here, it shouldn’t be totally random, but possibly have tie-ins to the plot, which has ample room for comedy.

The best solution for Deus Ex Machina is to have characters act for themselves. Examine what decisions they would make, and let them make it. If they choose the wrong one, they will suffer for it. If they choose the right one, they are a true hero because of themselves, not by something random or depending on other people or events.

P.S. In the end of Dodgeball, when they win and they get the chest with the cash inside, the chest is labeled ‘Deus Ex Machina’.

P.P.S. Thanks to SlyShy, SubStandardDeviation, and Carbon Copy for some points / corrections I missed.

Comment

  1. SlyShy on 15 October 2008, 23:20 said:

    Good article.

    Deus Ex Machina occurs when something happens without your characters working for it to happen.

    If your protagonists are suddenly saved by the cavalry charging over the hill to save them this is not Deus Ex Machina if: your characters did a whole lot of work to win over the cavalry to their side earlier in the story, or they arranged scouting along their path so the cavalry would meet them deliberately, or anything as long as your characters worked. Deus Ex Machina is when this previously unmentioned group of shining knights emerges over the horizon to vanquish the evil that was troubling you.

    Just to reiterate.

  2. Virgil on 15 October 2008, 23:23 said:

    Excellent point, I might have forgot to mention that…. and I’ve updated it a bit.

  3. Snow White Queen on 15 October 2008, 23:38 said:

    good article!

    deus ex machina is definitely something that writers need to know about.

  4. SubStandardDeviation on 16 October 2008, 03:28 said:

    Good article…with reservations. (Warning: tl;dr.)

    First off, I noticed a few grammatical errors. From this site’s copy editor, “I expected more…well, more.”

    Deus Ex Machina (day-us ex mack-eena) is the the creation of an ending by the laziness or ineptitude of a writer.
    This opening is misleading. First of all, DEM is not always an ending. What it sounds like is more “a sudden, unexpected, and unlikely resolution to a seemingly insurmountable problem”, usually through no exertion of the protagonists. “Rocks fall, everyone dies” is a lazy ending, but I doubt it’d be labeled as DEM.

    If your hint is memorable or too close to the ending, the reader will see what’s coming.
    Your use of “too” makes it sound as if this is a bad thing.

    If you have unexpected persons saving the day, they had better had a real good reason for it. Don’t create a perfectly moral side character so you can avoid it later. No one is perfect, so this character becomes a cardboard cutout, and as you set him up to help the protagonist, the reader will be able to tell what he’s there for.
    It sounds like you were trying to say that side characters shouldn’t be cardboard cutouts and their motivations should be introduced early to the reader, but it got a bit muddled.

    During the battle on the Burning Plains, why didn’t Eragon simply enter into the soldier’s minds, discover the magician who cast a ward on him, then kill the magician?
    Except…that is what Eragon did. He found the magicians, exploded their heads, then proceeded to kill the soldiers they were guarding like shooting fish in a barrel. A better example for “the easy way out” would be: Why didn’t Eragon cast Protection from arrows on Saphira (which we know he can, he did it on himself), then send her to rain fire on the enemy instead of fighting them on open ground with an outnumbered, undertrained, and already fortified army? “Because KEWL EPIC BATTLEZ!” is not an excuse. But that’s for another article…

    No destiny or fate. None at all.
    Unless it’s being subverted. Right?

    I can understand your reasons for this; even though some of the greatest works of literature have destiny/fate, it’s become a tired and played out cliche by now. However, “Destiny” does not automatically lead to DEM. To use an admittedly corny example, the second Pokémon movie centers around a prophecy which only the main character can fulfill, and he happens to be traveling in the area where the McGuffins are kept at the same time that the Balance is disturbed. Barring this silly plot hole, though, there is no Deus ex Machina; everything that happens is signposted well in advance. For example, when the protagonists are attacked by the newly un-Balanced legendary birds, the Beast of the Sea emerges from the depths and saves them; said Beast’s emergence at such a time was predicted in the prophecy, and being the keeper of the Balance, it would naturally want to help correct it.

    If your main character dies, let him die, it will feels more natural, and you won’t break any of the rules to your story. […] This can be a great opportunity to build the personality of the deceased and the living.
    This is a great note to end on; again, some great literature features the protagonist dying at the end of, or even halfway through, the story. Just keep in mind that the more you deviate from your original story, the tighter the editing you’ll have to do afterward so it all feels coherent.

  5. Carbon Copy on 16 October 2008, 06:25 said:

    A few points to add here.

    First of all, Deus Ex Machina is perfectly acceptable in certain situations. For example, you may be subverting expectations for the sake of comedy or to create something witty and clever (the movie “The Orchid Thief” springs to mind). You may also be creating a satirical swipe at something, or recreating a fairytale feel, where at the last moment Prince Charming saves the day. Basically, if you use DEM for a valid purpose, then I don’t have a problem with that.

    Even Shakespeare had unexpected people “saving the day” (or at least trying to). Edmund, in “King Lear”, is a fine example of someone who suddenly has a complete change of heart and attempts to “do the right thing”. Of course, he succeeds only in part, and he is technically on his death bed, so this might not be the best example. Perhaps a better example is Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing”, who suddenly performs his duties perfectly and arrests the villains.

    Also, while I agree destiny and “the chosen one” has been done to death, and should generally be avoided, the existence of destiny or a prophecy does significantly reduce the possibility of DEM. DEM has no explanation. If you can say, “oh, that’s because of the prophecy everyone keeps talking about”, then you’ve set up the resolution in advance. It will be rubbish, but it will not be DEM. Like the bit in the Matrix where Keanu Reeves comes back to life because he is the chosen one.

    As for the weather… HP Lovecraft frequently used the weather as the great leveller, often using lightning in a metaphorical sense for the moment of revelation that finally drives the protagonist insane.

    I’m not suggesting writers should use DEM. I agree that it is something to be avoided in almost all circumstances. But never say never…

  6. Virgil on 16 October 2008, 09:44 said:

    I don’t have much time, so I’ll just thank you guys now and make corrections later. And Sub, your ‘grammatical errors’ are more technical about DEM.

  7. Carbon Copy on 16 October 2008, 10:16 said:

    I forgot to say in my last post that this is a good article, and the example of the ceremony in Eldest is a perfect illustration of how DEM can cheat the reader out of a more interesting story.

    Until the ceremony, I was really wondering how Eragon was going to live up to everyone’s expectations. How was he going to fight Galbatorix? How was he going to cope with the grief of knowing that everybody was looking to him for help, but he was too weak to provide that help? He couldn’t even make it through a training exercise without dropping in agony. That was INTERESTING.

    His injuries would have provided a nice, simple explanation for why Morzan is tougher than him, and his weakness would have opened up countless possibilities for storylines. Who does the world turn to when their heroes are found lacking?

    Of course, because of his weakness in physical combat, Eragon would need to learn to outsmart his foes. Wouldn’t that have been more exciting?

  8. SlyShy on 16 October 2008, 11:44 said:

    Carbon Copy,

    I found your analysis of Shakespeare’s use of DEM very interesting. He actually uses it a lot, like when the Pirate ship intercepts Hamlet on the way to England. I think though, Shakespeare gets away with it because he is a master of irony, and the DEM inevitably leads to tragedy, comedy, and ironically so.

    Also, I agree that the Blood Oath story subverted what could have been a great story. I thought he was going to have be get creative with his magic to make up for his physical disability, but no such luck.

  9. Rhaego on 16 October 2008, 12:58 said:

    I totally saw the blood oath thing coming from like three Eragon POV chapters away. I didn’t know a shiny dragon tatoo was going to do it, (I thought Oromis’ great work was going to be healing Eragon) but I called him getting healed via DEM.

  10. Virgil on 16 October 2008, 17:59 said:

    Yeah, I didn’t like the Blood-Oath thing that much. It also wiped out the personality of another halfway decent character, Vanir, the elf who sneers and schools Eragon in sword-fighting. He seemed one of the few characters with a functioning brain.

  11. Spanman on 16 October 2008, 23:13 said:

    Hah, I was waiting for an article like this. Since my writing used to be made up of nothing but one DEM after another… Good points, Virgil, and everyone else.

    However, I was waiting for someone to explain that the literal meaning of Deus ex Machina is “God out of the machine”, which was how I first saw it explained back in my fantasy writing years. That definition really hit home with me. God out of the ordinary? What a strange idea! …no wait. This sounds oddly familiar…

    And then into the bin go all of my fantasy-novel ideas. Ah well.

  12. Virgil on 16 October 2008, 23:19 said:

    Hehe, sorry Span. I never liked the idea of DEM, but most people don’t do it today. It can be funny (Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s ending).

  13. Snow White Queen on 16 October 2008, 23:44 said:

    i LOVE that movie! i saw it at a sleepover with a friend and it became an instant favorite…

    gah now i feel like watching it, and i have to study for a test. bangs head against geometry book

  14. GC on 17 October 2008, 09:25 said:

    I always thought it was Day-us Ecks Muck-aina (to rhyme with hyena)…

  15. Rhaego on 17 October 2008, 12:51 said:

    I always thought it was Duce-ecks-makina, but I’ll take Virgil’s word for it.

  16. Virgil on 17 October 2008, 15:04 said:

    Eh. For a while I pronounced it Duce Ex Mashina, but I don’t think it matters too much. As long as you know what it is.

  17. Virgil on 17 October 2008, 21:04 said:

    Another Inheritance DEM moment.. the elves’ sword smith Rhunon swore an oath to never build a sword again. But not for the rampaging Gary Stu, he needs a Rider’s sword. So of course, Paolini finds a cheap way around that.

    And the sword catches on fire each time he says Brisingr. This trivial detail (provided by his dad) named his book.

    I’m disturbed by this.

  18. Spanman on 18 October 2008, 00:09 said:

    @Virgil: I never saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    hides

  19. Virgil on 18 October 2008, 00:11 said:

    I’ll tell you now, the ending comes out of nowhere. It is the perfect Deus Ex Machina.

  20. Snow White Queen on 18 October 2008, 00:12 said:

    spanman, that’s ok, i didn’t see it until last year. :)

    now i need to see life of brian…i heard that’s even better than the holy grail.

  21. Gildor on 10 November 2008, 17:03 said:

    Damn, I Created a DEM

    BUT! If I make slight hints of the DEM-characters throughout the story, and after that make them come forth in the epic conclusion after which they will prove themselves more capable of just the actions they have showed during the conclusion and the DEM-scene….

    Will that be enough to skirt the DEM-Description?

  22. Virgil on 10 November 2008, 17:16 said:

    Possibly, but people might still be annoyed. You could also not use the DEM, and see how things would play out.

  23. Rand on 10 November 2008, 18:51 said:

    What if the story was supposed to be dreamlike?

  24. Carbon Copy on 10 November 2008, 19:16 said:

    Gildor – it all depends on the story, and the nature of the DEM. If you have carefully seeded your story then your ending won’t be a DEM, because that ending has been set up. A DEM ending has to come out of nowhere, and resolve everything in a way that nobody could have predicted.

    If you believe that your story has a DEM ending, tread with caution. If you can’t set up the ending so it makes sense in the context of your world, then you may have to change that ending. There are exceptions, but generally, if you don’t want to annoy your readers, don’t write DEM.

    Rand – I have already posted about the difference between dream and story in my analysis of your NaNo entry. Remember, a dream is your brains way of processing, dealing with, and storying information. Dreams don’t make narrative sense. That’s why dreams in stories and movies don’t really work the same as dreams people have in real life.

    Seriously – saying “oh, but this is a dream” is not an excuse for a sloppy DEM ending.

  25. drrocket on 14 October 2010, 14:09 said:

    Science is always about models of the Real World. These are mere plots, carved to match the data.

    You say, “Weather is unpredictable”, which is not quite true, but regardless should be compared with Climate Is Predictable, the plot of Anthropogenic Global Warming, the Inconvenient Truth about CO2. When the authors learned that CO2 lagged global warming right there in their own data records, they invented the device that CO2 may not actually cause global warming, but amplifies it. DEM. And when the calculations of the CO2 man emitted wasn’t enough, they wove into the story that the ocean, which readily absorbs massive quantities of natural CO2, resists manmade CO2 through a hypothesized buffer that depended on the surface of the ocean being in equilibrium. DEM. And when the physics of radiation absorption in gases showed that the effect saturates, they invented the subplot that absorption increases to infinity with the logarithm of the gas concentration. DEM.

    And of course we should not forget that originally and as it is today, sometimes the Deus in DEM is none other than God, Himself. Thus when the evolution plot gets a bit thready, enter Deus, some say. This is Creationism, aka Intelligent Design. DEM.

    While DEM is a cautionary device in fiction, it is prohibited in science. Science conveys irony, but, alas, is humorless.