Narrative Techniques: Eucatastrophe

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at the eucatastrophe and the dyscatastrophe and how to use them.

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Written into Google, Eucatastrophe’s definition is ‘a sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending.’ However, when it is that simply-put, it reads more like Deus ex Machina than a narrative technique in its own right.

The truth is, this term was coined by none other than J. R. R. Tolkien, and it was a technique he was particularly fond of—see the end of The Lord of the Rings. In his 1947 essay ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ Tolkien went into greater depth exploring this technique and outlined how it is significant in the creation of his mythopoeia (artificial myths). The word is formed by affixing the Greek prefix ‘eu,’ meaning good, to ‘catastrophe,’ the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the ‘unravelling’ or conclusion of a narrative’s plot.

On the surface, there is quite a fair bit that this technique shares with Deus ex Machina, however there are differences that, if respected by a writer, could save them from writing the latter. A eucatastrophe can be a Deus ex Machina, but it doesn’t have to be, as eucatastrophes can also be foreshadowed. It can also be built up subtly through character development, as is the case in The Lord of the Rings. (Spoiler Alert!) Once Frodo has reached Mount Doom to finally throw the ring into the volcano, he succumbs to the evil. Sauron has discovered its location, Gollum had returned for vengeance, and Aragorn’s army is losing a battle it could have never won. But, at last, Frodo has just enough strength to push Gollum and the ring into Mount Doom to end it once and for all. He and Sam narrowly escape death and the story has its Eucatastrophic ending; a good ending.

While many may state that Gollum acts as the Deus ex Machina, it can be argued that it wasn’t out of Gollum’s character to fight to the death for the ring. In fact, it would have been out of character if Gollum hadn’t fought for it. What this ending does is subvert reader’s expectations. Everyone expects the protagonist, Frodo, to be the one to destroy the ring—willingly—but he didn’t. He was inclined to keep the ring for himself until he was forced to destroy it thanks to the chaos brought by Gollum. By this point this ending should be expected, as Frodo has been struggling to ignore the calls of the ring from the beginning of the first volume. But it is still sudden, and still results in a happy ending.

Another example of this is in the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (Spoiler Alert!), in which Prince Peter’s armies are moments from defeat and the White Witch looks like she is about to rule again, but a presumed dead Aslan arrives and helps aid in her defeat. This is very much Deus ex Machina in design, however many literary theorists see the Chronicles of Narnia as being biblical in nature, and thus the resurrection of Aslan may not be as unreasonable to those who noticed these themes throughout the novel.

It should come as no surprise that dyscatastrophe is the opposite of a eucatastrophe. The ending is still sudden, and may come as a surprise, but it does not benefit the protagonist and, often, can leave the audience feeling shocked and sour. For example, at the end of the George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novel (Spoiler Alert!), when it looks like a deal has been struck for Lord Eddard Stark to be spared from being sentenced to death for treason, the audience is subjected to a subversion. King Joffrey changes his mind on a whim (or so it seems), and to the surprise of every other character and the audience, Lord Eddard Stark is beheaded there and then. This triggers the events of the following novels as the world is plunged into turmoil, resulting in the death of untold numbers and a war that appears to be never-ending.

Another example of dyscatastrophe, also from the Song of Ice and Fire series, is that of the ‘Red Wedding,’ but this can be argued to be less surprising in nature, less based on the whims of a mad man. (Spoiler Alert!) This is due to Rob Stark’s previous mistake of upsetting his allies, the House of Frey, by cancelling his impending marriage to Lord Walder Frey’s daughter (which would have made her Queen in the North) and eloping with someone else. While the Freys appeared to take this in stride and seemed to happily arrange a new wedding for Rob’s uncle, it lulled the audience into a false sense of security. The wedding appears to have gone off well and the bride and groom are excited. Then the massacre happens. The casualty for the number of main characters is high, the Stark family takes another hit, and the fallout of this is felt across the globe. This wasn’t a random act of betrayal, however, to make the plot more interesting or wake up a reader. This was carefully planned and the spark was ignited long before the actual wedding, starting with the young Rob Stark’s naivety as king.

Hopefully these ideas will offer some inspiration—and possibly help in aiding you if you’re attempting to stop a Deus ex Machina. There is nothing wrong with sudden, happy (or unhappy) events, though audiences prefer to feel like it has been earned.

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

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