317. About Storytelling: Deus Ex Machina

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There come moments when storytellers feel trapped. A story has a problem with no easy solution. The hero is cornered by ravenous wolves, pushed off a cliff, or given a toothpick for a duel instead of a sword. No happy ending is possible.

This is when storytellers use a dirty little trick called deus ex machina. This fancy-sounding phrase is used to describe contrived or impossible resolutions in storytelling.

In the first problem mentioned above, the hero might be saved by the wolves dropping dead of simultaneous heart attacks. The second problem can be solved by an angel catching the hero in midair, and the third by the hero’s opponent abruptly putting down his sword and becoming a pacifist.

These solutions are ridiculously improbable, and that’s the point: deus ex machinas (or dei ex machinis if you want to be really fancy) are not believable. They are jarring reminders that fiction is completely made-up.

The phrase deus ex machina is Greek for god from the machine. In ancient Greek theater, actors representing gods entered the stage using literal machines, such as platforms that raised them up through trapdoors or lifts that lowered them down from above. These “gods from machines” represented divine beings capable of doing anything. Was the hero stuck in a problem with no solution? Presto! Here came a god to solve his problem miraculously!

Deus Ex Machina

Fear me, mortals! Be awed by my divine splendor! Pretend not to notice the crane!

Thanks to this theatrical convention, deus ex machina has entered the vocabularies of writers everywhere.

One of the most infamous deus ex machinas in recent history is the convenient arrival of giant eagles to save the heroes at the last possible moment in The Lord of the Rings. In The Adventures of Tintin, the hero is frequently saved by lucky coincidences such as landmines turning out to be duds when he drives over them. Charles Dickens, bless him, used deus ex machinas all the time to give his characters happy endings.

Aspiring writers should be familiar with the concept of deus ex machina for two reasons. First, they can avoid using it unnecessarily. Nothing ruins the excitement or verisimilitude of a good story like a cheap deus ex machina. Second, writers aware of the concept can use it meaningfully.

Yes, it can actually be a good thing for problems to be resolved in a contrived fashion. Deus ex machinas can be used for ironic or humorous effect, such as heroes escaping a monster because its animator has a sudden heart attack. They can also be used seriously to make a point, as in the final scenes of the movie Signs. In the climax of the film, a family survives a crisis due to an incredible set of coincidences… which begs a question asked earlier in the movie: “What if there are no coincidences?”

(Signs was quite a good film, but I will never forgive its director for what he later did to The Last Airbender. That movie, based on a truly superb television show, is a disaster no deus ex machina could save.)

Why am I writing about deus ex machinas? Well… I’m writing this post less than a day before it’s due. The subject of last-minute resolutions seems appropriate!

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