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.
by K.M. Weiland
“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 story. 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.
The only thing deus ex machina is guaranteed to fix is your readers’ low opinion.
It 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.
It 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.
It 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.
It 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.
Stories need to provide all the puzzle pieces to the reader by the time he reaches the climax.
It 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.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.
She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
Photo Credits: Stock XChng, K.M. Weiland