The Deus Ex Machina: Story-Killer

Let’s jump to the end of a made up movie that may seem fairly familiar.

Our heroes have fought bravely, fallen in love, and embraced their destinies. But even after having banded together, the forces of the enemy are far too great. That one character that was funny and generally likeable, but unimportant to the plot, is killed. Ammo is running low. The enemies are all around them!

The protagonist and his/her love interest kiss one last time, knowing that this is the end. But just before they are about to gallantly fight to the death, a rocket/bullet/trumpet blast/spaceship/eagle/etc. comes out of nowhere, catching both hero and villain off guard. It’s that one person or group that was briefly introduced several chapters/hours ago but never did anything! With these new reinforcements, victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat and our heroes have won against impossible odds in one of the most predictable manners of all time.

Behold! The deus ex machina!

Going Back to the Roots

“Deus ex Machina” means “a god from the machine” in Latin. And this is quite literally true for the origins of this idea. It seems as though Greek playwrights had a pension for writing their plays into an inescapable situation where all hope seemed lost. Not knowing how to resolve this conflict and wanting to pay their respects to their deities, many plays were resolved by a god who would descend from the heavens to right wrongs and ensure good won and evil lost. This character was portrayed by an actor either lowered to the stage via crane or ascending from a trapdoor. Quite literally a god from a machine.

Looking back, it may seem like a silly idea, but maybe ancient writers were still working out storytelling kinks. Then again, the deus ex machine had its detractors even in its heyday. And these critics were no slouches either.

Aristotle criticized the plot device in Poetics, stating that, “It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus ex Machina.” This is Aristotle we’re talking about here. Yet somehow, this most egregious of resolutions survived being criticized by one of history’s greatest philosophers. If only he could see it now.

Painted into a Corner

It doesn’t seem like most uses of a deus ex machinas are truly planned. Rather, they are used when a writer has taken his or her story to a point where internal forces cannot bring about the desired resolution. Or the thrill and danger that comes from a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or peril seems more important than how it is actually resolved. In either case, story resolution is given a backseat to visceral thrills and the allure of cliché.

In cases where a conflict cannot be internally resolved, bringing in an external force can be easier than rewriting large swaths of plot and characterization. And it may be that the writer may not label his or her choice of resolution as a deus ex machina. After all, J.R.R. Tolkein used the device frequently, except he portrayed it as a sudden stroke of luck that he called a “eucatastrophe.” The eagles at the end of  The Return of the King and any number of sudden and unexpected twists that work out for the heroes debatably fall into this category often in his works.

The thrill of the seemingly inescapable situation is truly alluring for many writers, both on screen and in prose. Unfortunately, the situation may actually be inescapable for a protagonist and require some form of sudden rescue. Take, for example, the climax of Saving Private Ryan. The heroes have squared off against a much larger Nazi military force in order to protect their fellow soldiers. Despite bravery and sacrifice, the protagonists are overwhelmed and are about to die. But when all hope seems lost, the U.S. Air Force swoops in, destroying Nazi tanks and winning the battle. And while U.S. fighter planes did play an important role during WWII, they were never really established in the film. So their sudden appearance is far more of a deus ex machina than a logical extension of the world. That’s not to say that the incident ruins the film, it just plays into the role completely.

Retroactively Killing the Story

When an audience chooses to read a novel or watch a film, there is a certain subconscious transaction that takes place. The audience will invest their time and money to watch the story unfold and, in turn, the story will follow a narrative that sets up a conflict and then solves it properly. Creating a deus ex machina ending breaks the cycle of stories that set up and properly conclude the narrative and story arcs present. Conflict solved by a deus ex machina takes story momentum and tosses it out the window. Depending on how it is used, this easy fix may cause the audience to resent how the story is finished.

Not every story that uses this device is automatically severely harmed by it. In fact, a large portion of books and films that use clichéd deus ex machinas in order to enhance the finale or solve story issues aren’t aiming to be masterpieces. Rather, they are typically solid pieces of entertainment without ideas of grandeur. But in either case, if the impossible sudden arrival of help has audiences rolling their eyes, the writer has goofed.

When a Bad Thing Goes Good

If a deus ex machina breaks a story arc, it’s possible that it can be used in a manner that emphasizes the strengths of a narrative, rather than undercutting them. Rather than wrap up a story and provide a happy ending out of thin air, the deus ex machina can upset conventional storytelling, subverting expectations and shining a spotlight on a deeper meaning that would have been lost in the story without this shakeup.

The ending of Lord of the Flies sees Ralph, the protagonist, desperately trying to escape the tribe of lunatic boys hellbent on capturing and killing him. The chase is ended when a passing ship sees the island in flames and comes to rescue them, stopping them mid-chase and putting an end to the mindless violence. This is not simply a deus ex machina to end the story and save the lead character, but create interference from the outside world that illustrates the base and evil actions of the boys, which arose out of nothing.

In No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss is in a cat and mouse game with the brutal, maniacal hitman Anton Chigurh over the money that he stole. Rather than have this conflict come to a more predictable conclusion, both film and novel have Llewelyn suddenly killed by Mexican gangsters who were only tangentially related to the plot. It comes out of nowhere and is not even detailed in the story, but this type of deus ex machina turns the narrative on its head in order to spotlight the true meaning of the story, which is far different from being a simple thriller.

Typically, the use of these types of deus ex machinas are met with both frustration and acclaim. They fail to adhere to typical story structure, yet illustrate far deeper meaning. They also often come across as more real. Gallant troops and reinforcements rarely make a last second save in the real world. Rather, life can be unpredictable and change at a moment’s notice, with outside forces altering what once seemed like the best laid plans and a seeming fate.

Look Before You Leap (or Write)

It seems as though most uses of the deus ex machina come from poor story planning, or a lack of desire to creatively and uniquely end a story. Not every medium has the luxury of fully crafting a story before it is finalized, but there are plenty of chances to do something new and unique. If you find yourself relying on a plot device that was harshly criticized even thousands of years ago, you may need to take a second look at how you can change your narrative.

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