What is Deus Ex Machina and Why We Should Try to Avoid it In Our Writing

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What is Deus Ex Machina and Why We Should Try to Avoid it In Our Writing

deus ex machina plot device in fiction writing

Chances are you may have encountered the use of Deus Ex Machina (pronounced “dayus eksMAKEEnuh” and not “dayus eks maSHEEnah” as I’d been doing for most of my life) but didn’t realize it. It’s more popular than we know, and it’s present in much of the media we consume.

“Deus Ex Machina” is a Latin term meaning “god from the machine” and it’s a plot device used in fiction where a seemingly unsolvable problem is conveniently and unrealistically resolved.

Where did it come from?

Deus Ex Machina originated from ancient Greek theater where a “god character” was lowered down onto the stage via crane. His purpose was to resolve the otherwise impossible situation that the protagonists had gotten themselves into.

Some examples that may help illuminate what this looks like in modern fiction/media are:

War of the Worlds

In this movie, starring Tom Cruise and based on the book by H.G. Wells, the resolution of the alien problem comes when the aliens become exposed to the bacteria on our planet and begin to die off. After all the suffering and destruction that the protagonists and the rest of the world had been put through, the answer was as simple as “the aliens had no immunity.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Towards the end of the movie, when Harry finds himself cornered by the basilisk, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes, appears out of nowhere. It blinds the basilisk with its claws and provides Harry with the sorting hat from which Gryffindor’s sword will appear and which Harry will use to finally slay the basilisk.

Both of these examples show climaxes that are the result of sheer luck and little to almost no work by the protagonists.

While it’s been comfortably used in popular media even today, the argument is that employing Deus Ex Machina at the resolution to tie up loose ends quickly, when other options seem unavailable, feels too convenient.

What’s the problem with that, right? Wouldn’t we all love it in real life if some hand popped out of the sky and solved all our problems? Wouldn’t that be such a dream?

It would. Who wouldn’t love a hand popping out of the sky to hand us $1 million? But you gotta admit, you would question it. In fact, it might even freak you out a little bit, whether you question it or choose to blindly accept it.

And it’s kind of the same when applied in fiction.

After all, it was Khaled Hosseini who said, “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”

Stories are generally shaped out of character arcs because we want to see the protagonist overcome the problem. We want to see them use their skills to “win.”

But when Deus Ex Machina is used at the climax of a story, it leaves the protagonists out of the equation, rendering the story meaningless. The purpose of the hero’s journey and their strife is lost.

There are circumstances, however, in which a Deus Ex Machina could be the perfect literary device to use, so don’t rule it out completely!

Depending on the genre and tone, Deus Ex Machina could work. In a comedy or satire, Deus Ex Machina would be forgiving and maybe heighten the ridicule you’re aiming for. By all means, go ahead and experiment with this plot device — the Greeks loved it for a reason!

However, when using it in drama or action, I’d advise handling it with care and ensuring that the rest of the narrative has the strength to hold it up.

The most important thing to remember is that a narrative aims to always keep the protagonist involved in the climatic resolution because leaving them out of it can render it meaningless.

If you’re not sure whether your climax and resolution involve Deus Ex Machina, if this is something you’re hoping to avoid, an editor can help! Editors can help you tighten the climax and assist in improving issues of foreshadowing as well as give suggestions that can help elevate the complexity of your story’s ending. So go ahead and reach out if this is something you have concerns about!


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