Deus Ex Machina: What it is, Why it’s Bad and How to Avoid It
In order to understand what a deus ex machina is, first we need to go back in time. In fact, we need to go all the way to Ancient Greece, where the problems storytellers faced were the same as the ones we face today.
Just like in modern stories, in ancient Greece writers liked to give their protagonists lots of problems, because conflict is what stories are all about.
But, in Ancient Greece, there was no TV and no movies, so drama was all about the theatre.
So, imagine you’re an Ancient Greek playwright. You’ve got your theatre, you’ve got your actors and you’re working on your play. Now all you need is an ending. Trouble is, your script piles up so many problems up for the protagonists that you can’t think how to get them out of the pickle they’re in.
And, even worse, the play opens in two day’s time…
What to do? What to do?
‘Ah hah!’ you say. ‘I’ll get Zeus to come down from Mount Olympus and sort things out. People love the gods, so that’ll work, right?’
So you get the theatre to rig up some pulleys to lower ‘Zeus’ down from the rafters to get the protagonists out of whatever sticky situation you’ve got them in, resolve the story’s conflict once and for all, and wind the play up quick before the audience starts asking for its money back.
The Ancient Greek phrase for this was apò mēkhanês theós, which literally means ‘god out of the machine’ The ‘machine’ here is the pulleys or crane or whatever that lowered ‘Zeus’ to the stage.
Even then, it was criticised. Aristotle said:
The resolution of a plot must arise internally from the character’s previous actions. The author should make their characters do things that are either necessary or probable from what the audience knows of them. Similarly, the ending of a plot should come about because of the plot not from a contrivance.
Bring on the Romans
When the Romans came along, their writers had exactly the same problems and used the same solution (different gods, though, obviously). And when you translate apò mēkhanês theós into Latin, you get… deus ex machina.
And this time, the name stuck. It’s been deus ex machina ever since Julius Caesar was a boy.
Yeah, it’s that old.
In fact, it’s so old that people already regarded it as a bit of a weak way of ending a story before Jesus was born.
Everyone’s a critic, huh?
Modern Deus Ex Machina
So, what’s this got to do with today’s writers? There aren’t any gods being lowered to the stage at the end of movies these days, surely?
Nowadays, a deus ex machina refers to any previously unmentioned external force suddenly and unexpectedly resolving a seemingly unsolvable story problem. The ‘external force’ is a solution outside the control of the characters. It can be an event, character, ability, or object. It could even be a god, though it usually isn’t.
Aside: The Plural of Deus Ex Machina
Strictly, it’s Dei Ex Machina (Gods in Machines) but people use Deus Ex Machinas too. That’s kinda wrong, but we’re not Latin scholars, right?
Deus Ex Machina: Rules
There are some rules about what makes a deus ex machina:
- Only a solution to a problem can be a deus ex machina.
- An unexpected event that makes things worse for the protagonist is a plot twist.
- A sudden revelation that changes the audience’s understanding of the story or a character is a reveal.
- A deus ex machina has to be unexpected.
- If the solution is set up earlier in the story, then when it saves the day, it’s a pay off.
- The protagonist’s plight has to appear hopeless before the deus ex machina intervenes.
- If there are obvious solutions that the characters ignore, then it’s an idiot plot.
- A deus ex machina is outside the control of the characters.
- If the protagonist saves themself through some unlikely improvisation, it’s handwaving or technobable.
- If the antagonist has an unlikely change of heart, or the unstoppable threat fizzles out, it’s an anti-climax.
- If the story ends without solving the unsolvable problem, it’s a cliffhanger.
What’s Wrong With a Deus Ex Machina?
I mean, in reality, unexpected things happen. Passers-by intervene. The police blunder into the serial killer. Stray bullets kill soldiers. People decide things on a whim. Bombs fail to go off. Etc. etc. etc.
Well, that’s true, but even so, I strongly recommend you not use a deus ex machina to get your protagonists out of whatever predicament you’ve got them into.
Resorting to a deus ex machina suggests the author didn’t think their plot through properly. What they’re saying to their audience is that they couldn’t think of a better way to get their protagonist out of the jeopardy they placed them in. It shows a lack of creativity. It’s inept. And no one likes a cheat.
It Just Doesn’t Work
It destroys suspension of disbelief and damages the story’s internal logic. It’s a transparent contrivance, and that’s breaking the contract that the writer has made with the reader. Readers love a sudden and unexpected event that makes things worse, but they hate it when a similarly sudden and unexpected event solves problems.
It’s Unlikely to Get Published
Worst of all, agents and publishers are going to spot your deus ex machina and reject your work. If you self-publish it, critics will dismiss you as an amateur.
Deus Ex Machina in James Bond
People often call Bond’s gadgets dei ex machina, but most of them aren’t. Many of them are incredibly fortuitous, turning out to be exactly what Bond needs to get out of a tight scrape, but the audience knows Bond has them because of the obligatory ‘briefing with Q’ scene where the gadget is set up.
Having said that, some of Bond’s save-the-day gadgets are dei ex machina.
- The ski backpack that’s actually a parachute, and the car that turns into a submarine, in The Spy Who Loved Me are dei ex machina, as the screenplay hasn’t set them up.
- Similarly, the gondola that turns into a hovercraft in Moonraker.
- Bond’s watch in Live and Let Die also conveniently turns out to have a previously unmentioned built-in circular saw.
I would argue though that even these aren’t exactly dei ex machina, as Bond always had gadgets in the previous movies and so the audience expects him to have gadgets and is disappointed if he doesn’t.
There is though a great example of a deus ex machina in the novel of Dr. No, though, because the final sentence in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love after Rosa Klebb has mortally poisoned Bond is:
Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor.
Bond is supposed to be dead. So dead that From Russia with Love is the only Bond novel to close with the words, “THE END”.
But From Russia With Love was a huge commercial success, and so Fleming resurrected his hero at the start of Dr No by inserting a (previously unmentioned) “doctor with experience of tropical poisons” who happened to be staying at the hotel.
“He was damn lucky,” as M says.
Well, no, M, it was a deus ex machina…
‘It Was All a Dream… or was it?’
Getting your protagonist into some predicament and then they wake up, is such a deus ex machina, such a schoolboy error, that my teacher taught me not to write ‘it was all a dream’ when I was in junior school. Which, come to think of it, was pretty advanced thing to be teaching a seven-year-old, but hey…
The ‘it was all a dream’ ending is unsatisfying because it means that everything that’s happened didn’t really happen, and so the entire story was a waste of the reader’s time. It’s an anti-climax, at best.
Some variations on the ‘it was all a dream’ theme are:
It was all:
- A hallucination or supernatural vision
- An exercise
- On the holodeck
- Because the narrator was unreliable or mentally ill
Which isn’t to say you can’t use those plot devices, just don’t hide them. One of the greatest Star Trek: TNG episodes, The Inner Light, is a hallucination, for example. But crucially, it’s up front about it. The viewer knows a ray from an alien probe is making Picard experience the hallucination from the start of the story.
Can a Deus Ex Machina Ever Work?
There are though, some situations when they’re not as bad.
Sometimes people say a deus ex machina can work in a comedy, because as long as it’s funny, no one cares. Similarly, a story that’s absurdist or surreal may accommodate a deus ex machina better than a realistic story.
Early in a story, the audience will accept coincidences or contrivances more readily than towards the end. That’s because the story is still establishing the world and the characters, and so the audience is more prepared to suspend disbelief.
Similarly, if the main character is in jeopardy twenty minutes into a two-hour movie, the audience knows they’re going to get out of it somehow, but that doesn’t mean they won’t groan a little if a deus ex machina saves them.
How to make Sure Your Story Doesn’t Have a Deus Ex Machina
So, what to do when you’ve painted your protagonist into a corner, set up an unsolvable problem, or they’re otherwise doomed and with no way out?
- Decide how they’re going to get out of it.
- Go back and edit previous chapters to set that solution up.
- Once it’s set up, it’s not a deus ex machina any more! You rule!
But I Can’t Think of Anything!
Okay, it’s certainly possible to write your protagonist into a corner and then get stuck.
But the solution is still not a deus ex machina.
The solution is either:
- Come up with something clever.
- Rework your plot.
Don’t be tempted to take the easy (but dumb) way out. Instead, think of something that makes sense and is under the control of the characters. If you immerse yourself in the world of your story, then you’ll think of something. Make your characters deserve their victory!
Things to Do
- Be aware of what a deus ex machina is.
- Understand why they’re a bad idea.
- Write down five examples of dei ex machina in popular novels/movies.
- Think about how you could change the stories to remove them.
- Read through your own work and identify if you have any dei ex machina.
- Think about how to edit your work to remove them.
Want to Read More?
For more tips on writing a good ending, see How to Write a Story Ending.
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