Narrative Techniques: Deus Ex Machina

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at Deus ex Machina as a plot device, and whether it has any uses.

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‘God out of the machine’ means to resolve the primary conflicts of the story using something completely unrelated to the plot. That is Deus ex Machina in a nutshell, and unfortunately it is a common writing technique that results in a lot of audience frustration.

This is due to the nature of a story. The most satisfying of stories are those that feel earned. The character’s story arc is completed: they’ve concluded their conquest; they’ve found the answer; they’ve gained whatever it was that they lacked at the beginning and added it to their repertoire of skill or confidence. If the conclusion of the story is resolved by something unrelated, it feels like the audience has read it all for nothing.

It’s the bacteria to your invading aliens, the green kryptonite to your red kryptonite, and it’s definitely Greek god Apollo stepping in and straightening out a story’s undecipherable mess.

Deus ex Machina can also be seen as a poorly performed plot twist; an attempt at the author to create something so unique and unpredictable that they fail to realise that it has stopped being a twist and started being a plot convenience. This ties with the most common reason a Deus ex Machina falls into a narrative—the author has written himself or herself into a corner.

If one ends up struggling to resolve the plot without inviting in a god-level fixer-upper, then it may be time to review the narrative. Take it apart and work out why your main character can’t defeat the villain without that convenient train coming out from nowhere.

It could be because the author has done it on purpose. It could be due to something as simple as the author does not want the protagonist to be the one to kill the antagonist—as this is often believed to be the only way to resolve a narrative. This isn’t always the case and not all stories need to end in a gallant and/or righteous murder, but, also, in some circumstances, it becomes unrealistic for the protagonist to remain ‘virtuous,’ by the design of the story.

That being said, Deus ex Machina is not strictly off the writing table. It has, on numerous occasions, been used for comedic purposes. This is most notable in films such as Monty Python: Life of Brian, where the narrative technique is noticeably garish. An alien spaceship saves Brian from a fatal fall, drops him off at the next plot point and is never spoken of or heard from again.

There is also Deus ex Machina that is visually satisfying, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense to the plot. For example, the raptors in Jurassic Park spend a good amount of time terrifying and hunting the protagonists, but they’re munched on by a Deus ex T-Rex before they get their chance.

Deus ex Machina was also once a popular writing technique, particularly during Greek plays. Actors, playing gods, would be lowered down by a crane (the machine), and solve all the problems near the end using their god-like powers. It is quite similar to a divine intervention, however the two are subtly different in that Deus ex Machina is a solution to unsolvable plot issues. They do not make things worse, like hamartia, nor do they change the understanding of the plot. It is not a left-field revelation by the villain to string out the story, nor is it relevant to anything else that has happened within the context of the narrative.

It can be considered similar to the plot being resolved by someone other than the protagonist, someone with a once minimal role throughout the novel. Or even the revelation that the answer was there all along, but no one bothered to ask. If not built up effectively, a ‘eureka moment’ can also be felt as a poor Deus ex Machina as audiences often like to know the workings out of detectives in their novels.

Deus ex Machina is, by design (accidentally or otherwise), an abrupt, unsatisfying ending to a climax of a story that one has been invested in for however long. If one is insistent that this is how the story ends, then maybe it should be considered taking the Deus ex Machina and converting it into Chekhov’s Gun. This means foreshadowing the end result earlier within the book.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry, out-powered and on his own, is suddenly aided by Fawkes the Phoenix, who comes bearing the Sorting Hat, of all things. When all seems lost, the Sorting Hat reveals it has a powerful goblin-made sword, later revealed to only appear to those who are true Gryffindors (Harry, lucky for him).

In this case, The Sword of Gryffindor is the Deus ex Machina. Fawkes’ magical healing tears, not so much, as Professor Dumbledore had already referenced this earlier in the novel. If the sword were mentioned earlier in the novel, either in passing House-pride discussion or even in that very scene in Professor Dumbledore’s office, it wouldn’t feel entirely out of the blue.

Chekhov’s Gun, simply put, is the removal of everything unnecessary. If there’s a gun in the first act, you best believe it is going off at some point in the third. Do not make false promises to the reader—again, another reason Deus ex Machina can cheapen a reader’s experience is that it feels like a break of an agreement between author and audience. Introducing your solution earlier in the novel can also add to a level of engagement from the audience (particularly when they rush back a few chapters with a muttering of ‘I understood that reference’). They’ll feel like they’ve earned it for remembering the Magnum on the shelf and the bacteria all over us dirty, dirty humans.

So be careful to make sure not to cheapen your audience’s reading experience. Take care and consider why the climax ends the way it does, and whether it bears any relevance to the story you’re trying to tell. Is it because you’re frustrated and don’t want to have to re-write 50,000 words, or is it because you’re writing a comedy and a left-field approach could also be the funniest?

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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