Writing smells: deus ex machina

Statue

In previous posts I’ve identified writing smells, places in your writing that reek of problems. If you can identify these smells you can improve your writing.
Because my list of smells keeps growing, I’ve decided to start gathering them in a separate page, a writing smell catalogue, which is easier to peruse than a bunch of blog posts.

One of the more famous writing smells, or at least one that’s old enough to have a latin name: deus ex machina. Actually, this latin name is derived from an ancient Greek name, so it’s even older.

Deus ex machina

The term ‘deus ex machina’ is latin for ‘God out of the machine’ or ‘God from the machine’. The term has its origins in old plays, where at the end, God would appear to solve everybody’s problems. These scenes involved actors being lifted onto and off the stage with cranes. The story would miraculously be solved by this god airlifted onto the stage, a ‘deus ex machina’.
In present-day stories, it’s usually not God that comes to save the day, but something or somebody else.

A bit of a spoiler alert, I’m going to talk about (some of) the ending of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars: A New Hope. Beware before you continue.

One famous example – which is also often debated – is the Great Eagles that save the day in both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. They come swooping onto the stage and save the day, just like that.

A deus ex machina is a form of breaking promises to the reader. When you go into a story, there is the implicit promise that the main characters will triumph. When the central conflict is resolved, the reader must feel it is a logical consequence of all the actions of the main characters and the problems they encountered during the story, and it must preferably surprise them in how it is resolved. With a deus ex machina, this promise is broken: the characters didn’t solve the problem themselves, an external entity flew in and it did it for them. This invalidates everything they did.

So, how to fix it? Fixing the deus ex machine requires  you to either remove the ‘deus’ or set it up better.

If we look at the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien could just have removed the Eagles from both stories.  In the Hobbit, this would require the men, elves, and dwarves, to beat the attacking Orcs and Goblins themselves. In the Lord of the Rings, though, it would create a very big problem, in that Frodo and Sam would probably die.

There is an alternative. A deus ex machina becomes a part of the plot if set up properly. If you make it feel to the reader as if the deus ex machina resolution came about as a direct consequence of the main character’s actions, then it’s no longer a deus ex machina. The eagles in the Lord of the Rings come out of nowhere. There is lore of Tolkien’s world that does explain it, but that basically boils down to “the eagles are tools of the gods and if you are nice, they’ll come and help you” and I feel that doesn’t cut it.

As an alternative, look at the ending of Star Wars: A New Hope. You’ll see that Luke is in a pickle and about to be killed by Darth Vader when suddenly Han Solo shows up. Like an eagle he swoops in and saves the day. However, the difference is, this rescue is the completion of Han Solo’s character arc. It was set up by having Han Solo leave just before the final battle to the disappointment of Luke, and then changing his mind and saving his friend in the nick of time.  And suddenly it works and doesn’t feel like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.

So, the conclusion is that a deus ex machina is a conflict resolution that doesn’t properly follow from the rest of the story. To fix it, remove the deus ex machina or set it up better.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands