"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

D = Deus ex Machina

What is Deus ex Machina?

It's a literary device, where an author writes an unbelievable (flat) concept/character/event into a story line to instantly solve a plot problem/conflict with seemingly no other way out. Basically, if the author over imagines his conflict and can't figure out a logical, on-par-with-the-plot solution, he/she can just "make something up" to - as if by magic - bring things to a nice, tidy close. To be fair to the authors that use Deus ex Machina, in the eyes of mainstream readers, this plot device is often subjective to personal perception of a story. Although any literary critic will argue, Deus ex Machina is very bad and should not be done.

Famous examples:

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer
Bella has a magical ability; she is a supernatural shield from psychic abilities. So much of Breaking Dawn is spent with the Cullen family and their werewolf allies preparing for war with an all powerful coven of vampires. Then in the midst of the big showdown, Bella realizes not only can she shield her army as a whole, but she can individually wrap a shield around each and every person on her side of the battle...Thus reducing the need for war because this opposing, Ancient and Terrible Governing Coven of Vampires would immediately realize they will lose any war started... Problem solved.

Critics argue this was a bad ending to a bad story and if I'm being honest with myself, the critics are probably right. But I've unashamedly admitted to liking The Twilight Saga... It's cheesy romantic drivel and for once, I don't care. To me it was a bit of a modern day fairy-tale and I didn't hate the simplicity. I didn't want to question it. Perception is everything. I don't like romantic tragedies... I read through a book where the main characters die in a way that could have been avoided and I feel like I should sue for my time spent reading. Also, there weren't any supporting characters within the protagonist's family that I wanted to see whacked. I recognize Stephanie Meyer as having used Deus ex Machina, but I don't care because I got what I wanted: a happy ending.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Pi Patel and his family are shipping the exotic contents of a private zoo across the Pacific Ocean when the ship goes down. Pi manages to find himself on a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger. He spends days of hardship at the sea with aggressive cat. The story was thick with religious symbols, on top of the very obvious man vs nature. Pi spends so much time struggling to survive on open water, the reader begins to think, safety will never ever be found. Then without warning, Pi's on land.

My first reaction was to the abrupt transition between Sea and Land was: "Did I doze off?" It happens, you stay up late reading, fall asleep for a few minutes... Maybe a lock of hair bumps the kindle and it jumps ahead... But, no: There is the last sentence I remember reading and here we are on land. When Yann Martel got bored of preaching religious acceptance and ran out of things for a little Indian boy and a tiger to do at sea, he dumped them on a beach in Mexico. I rated this book highly because I did indeed enjoy the overall message of the book and the writing was nearly flawless. But again, perception matters. 

Unlike with Twilight, which had very little substance start to finish, Life of Pi was filled with substance. Martel put so much work into his prose, into his viewpoints and then -- Gave up. A book so heavily bogged down with effort to end in effortlessness, left me feeling slightly bitter. Not unlike my response to romantic tragedies, I felt slightly cheated by the use of Deus ex Machina (not that I think romantic tragedies are D-e-M, but imagine how different things would have been if Romeo and Juliet had tried to be honest and had a higher appreciation for life).

Deus ex Machina. Is it good or bad? Like many things in life it depends on its usage and the court of public opinion. In theory, I think it's bad. Writers ought to put as much thought into an ending as the beginning. In reality, I don't always mark down the literary device, if it gets me the ending my heart desired. I'm greedy like that.

Got any examples of Deus ex Machina? Ever had trouble objectively rating a great story a bad ending?


  1. I'm not a fan of this device but, like you, there are times when I am happy to accept it and times when I'm not. Books like Twilight are harmless enough. Entertaining without taxing the brain, and sometimes that's exactly what's needed.

    I do try to keep an eye out for this in my own writing. This is where good editors and beta readers can help the process as they're more likely to pick it up.


    1. I always wonder to whether or not an over-imagined book was contractually obligated to be finished in a certain number of installments...as a reader it's easy to forget the business aspects of writing...but I wonder, if you need more time to tie up the loose ends, why not add another book? Even the smallest small time authors have fans, lol, when have fans ever said, "Oh no, theres more?" Why ever end a series in DeM?

      Although with a book like Pi, it was so glaring an error...smh.

  2. Bad!

    It originates from Greek tragedies / comedies, as it translates to "God in the Machine", wherein the characters would get themselves into inextricable dilemmas and just as everything seemed lost, the gods would descend ffom the sky and fix everything.

    I can't even imagine going to a second play as an ancient Greek citizen.


    1. LOL, you say that like the Ancient Greeks have the only religion where deities interfere in people's lives!

      I do agree it detracts from otherwise good stories, when the author fails to plan an endgame.

  3. Interesting...thanks for pointing this out to me. I think I have read a lot of books that use this and thinking about them now....they would have been so much better if there had been more depth. However they still entertained me, so....maybe that was the purpose? Not sure...but thankful for this!

    1. Books are most definitely meant to entertain, whether or not they use this plot device... It's more a matter of 'correctness' in writing style. Like spelling a word with an outdated form--the word is used correctly but is the spelling appropriate for the story and audience. Some comedies use deus ex machina, to purposely provoke laughter; fantasy novels with magical elements have to be considered more deeply because there's magic involved(did the author build a world where such a thing was possible within the rules of that world?)...


Thank you for taking the time to leave me your thoughts! I try to respond to all comments and questions, so come back soon!