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.
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?