When it comes to wrapping up a conflict, is a deus ex machina a thrilling conclusion or just lazy writing?
You’ll find a lot of differing opinions on the utility of deus ex machina in creative writing, but you won’t find one overarching declaration on whether they’re good to use or not. Instead, it’s up to you to make your own decision regarding this polarizing device and whether it has a place in your work. And the more you know about how it functions and what its purpose is, the better you can decide if it’s the way to go.
Here’s what to know about this popular—and popularly debated—storytelling device, including a quick deus ex machina definition, well-known examples, and a few helpful tips for using it in your writing.
What is Deus Ex Machina?
There are two factors at the heart of a deus ex machina:
1. A character is in a seemingly impossible-to-escape situation.
2. This character is saved by a person, object, or event that appears suddenly and, in many cases, right at the moment when all hope is truly lost.
The form that the deus ex machina takes can vary quite a bit depending on the story. It might be a character, but it can just as likely be a suddenly remembered key piece of information or an abrupt sickness. And sometimes it’s even more obtuse, such as when the story’s hero is facing imminent destruction but suddenly wakes up safe in bed and realizes that it was all just a bad dream.
What’s notable about deus ex machina (and what’s so controversial about it) is that it takes an unsolvable problem and makes it go away with an opportune solution. Those who decry its use tend to argue that it shows a lack of creativity on the part of the author or that it does an injustice to a complicated storyline by tying it up in a nice and overly simplified bow.
Still, there are some benefits to the device. Deus ex machina is an easy way to get your character out of a difficult situation—which may be necessary if you’ve backed yourself into a storytelling corner. Done well, it can also lend humor, suspense, or surprise to your work, any of which can benefit a story as a whole.
Deus Ex Machina Meaning in English
This Latin phrase translates to “god from the machine” and refers to divine intervention and an unexpected resolution to a problem.
Deus Ex Machina Origin
The translation above is from Latin to English, but the idea itself originated in the plays of Ancient Greece, when a statue of a god or an actor playing a god would be brought to the stage via some sort of machine—usually a trap door or a crane. Once arrived, the god would intervene and solve the problem, thus concluding the conflict and allowing the play to either end or move on.
Today, deus ex machina is not wholly defined by the presence of either god or machine. It is, however, a comparable plot device to the “god from the machine” on the Greek stage and serves the same purpose with the same convenient timing.
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Famous Deus Ex Machina Examples
It’s one thing to read about what this device means in writing and a whole other to actually examine it in use. Are you familiar with any of these famous examples?
Examples of Deus Ex Machina in Literature
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding: After fighting his way past Jack and his murderous tribe, Ralph is chased down to the beach and collapses. When it seems like he has no choice but to surrender, he looks up to see not his hunters but his savior—a naval officer who has come to the beach after noticing smoke on the island.
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: Deus ex machina is a common trope in fantasy and science fiction, including Wells’ seminal work. In the story, the entire population of Earth seems doomed to death by the invading Martians and their war machines. Yet, lucky for them, the otherwise unkillable aliens are taken out by Earth-borne pathogens and seize to be a threat.
Examples of Deus Ex Machina in Film
- The Wizard of Oz: At the end of her many adventures, Dorothy wakes up in bed and is told that she hit her head and whatever she experienced was just a dream. This conclusion faced criticism for being overly gimmicky and undoing the power of the narrative that came before it, though it’s not totally out of line with the story’s other fantastical elements.
- Star Wars: Attack of the Clones: Machine does in fact save the day in this Star Wars prequel, when R2-D2 saves Padme from the drone factory by flying to her rescue—an ability he has never been shown to possess until that very moment.
Examples of Deus Ex Machina in Plays
- Medea (Euripides): Medea escapes punishment for her horrific crimes thanks to the well-timed appearance of a chariot sent by her grandfather, Helios, the god of the sun. (Notably, Euripides used deus ex machina so often that some scholars actually credit him with popularizing it in Greek theater.)
- As You Like It (William Shakespeare): There are a few instances of deus ex machina in Shakespeare’s famous play, but the most commonly cited one is when Hymen, the god of marriage, shows up and resolves the complicated romantic subplots of the play’s main characters.
How (and When) to Use Deus Ex Machina in Your Writing
If Shakespeare and Golding can use deus ex machina, then surely you can too, right? There’s a time and a place for everything in writing and no hard and fast rule against avoiding deus ex machina in plays, fiction, and other creative works. But it’s important to use this tool wisely, especially if you don’t want to garner a collective eye roll from your readers or audience.
When is Deus Ex Machina Okay to Use?
It works best when they fit within the context of the story. It’s why James Bond’s ability to free himself from a shark-infested death trap in Live and Let Die by using the convenient rotary saw function on his watch is fun instead of cringey. And it’s why we accept Tolkien’s eagles when they appear time and again to rescue characters on the brink of destruction in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In these instances, the means of deus ex machina are both unexpected and not, since while the rotary saw and the eagles certainly save the day at just the right moment, neither are out of the realm of the ordinary for the worlds their stories inhabit.
So if you’re wondering whether you should use this device, ask yourself: is this contextually appropriate? If it’s not, then you should find another way out.
How to Use Deus Ex Machina
Many a great writer has backed themselves into a corner before. And while a deus ex machina isn’t always the preferred way to escape it, it can work if done well.
Before using this device, make sure that there is no other viable solution for your character. To avoid being deemed a lazy playwright or novelist, you need to do your due diligence and not use a deus ex machina simply because you’re ready to be done with the scene.
Next, consider the world that you’ve built and what a believable version might be. Remember: whatever it is that saves the day, it should fit within the context of your story.
And finally, don’t use it more than once in a story. One occurrence can be a fun plot twist—two or more are just obvious “get out of jail free” cards for tricky situations of your own making.
Can a Deus Ex Machina Be Good?
Absolutely! A well-placed, well-written “god from the machine” can tie up the loose ends of a story and give your audience a shocking surprise. Just be sure to use it wisely (and sparingly), and don’t underestimate your own ability to work your way out of a complex problem in your writing.
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