If you’ve ever heard of deus ex machina and wondered what it is, have I got an article for you. Deus ex machina is Latin and means “God from the machine.” It refers to a plot device that results in a miracle that saves the day when all seems lost and there’s no way out. This is used when the author has written themselves into a corner. It can come from a not-before-mentioned ability, a new event or character, a surprise object, or it was all a dream or something created in someone’s mind. The result usually leads into a happy ending.
The Greeks were famous for their use of deus ex machina by dropping Zeus or Aphrodite or some other god into the scene to foil the villain’s plans at the last minute. Even Shakespeare and Jane Austen have used deus ex machina. So why is this frowned upon? It results in a plot that feels contrived and a reader that feels cheated and manipulated. It also undermines character development, but it ultimately paints the author as lazy and lacking in creativity.
But surely this plot device isn’t still being used, right? Wrong. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz used the “it was all a dream” trope. But my favorite example of this is in the television show Dallas from the 1980s. Patrick Duffy, the actor that played Bobby Ewing, quit the show and the writers killed his character at the end of that season. A year later, Duffy wanted back on the show. How did the writers write themselves out of the corner? With the infamous shower scene that turned the entire previous season into a dream. Of course this use of “God from the machine” has been ridiculed and used as fodder for countless comedians in the late 1980s.
Another example is the use of the eagles in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After destroying the ring, Sam and Frodo are hopelessly stranded on Mount Doom with no hope of rescue. But then the eagles appear and save them from certain death. Of course this leads readers to eventually ask, why didn’t they just use the eagles to fly into Mordor and drop the ring in the volcano of Mount Doom from above? That’s one of the risks of using deus ex machina. It’s a simple plot device that in hindsight could have shortened the entire Lord of the Rings movie trilogy from over 9 hours to about 30 minutes.
Of course I can’t talk about deus ex machina without mentioning Fight Club, which employed the “it’s all in his head” version. If you haven’t read Fight Club and don’t know the outcome, I won’t spoil it here. But in my opinion, Palahniuk’s use actually worked for me.
Deus ex machina is used successfully in parodies and comedy for humor. But if you aren’t writing humor, it will most likely come across as a plot device and make your story’s outcome contrived. If it’s convenient or an unintentional coincidence, you should probably take another look at it and decide if it’s deus ex machina. And if you’ve written yourself into a corner, review and rewrite your story and resist the temptation to play God.
What uses of “God from the machine” have you seen in books? Please share them in the comments below.
Now… go write something!