Continuing my series on literary devices, I’m talking less today about how to use a specific literary device and more about how to avoid using one, specifically an often-criticized device known as “deus ex machina.”
Deus ex machina is probably one of those literary devices that ring a vague bell from your high school literature class. Literally translated as “the god in the machine” (or “the god from the machine”), deus ex machina refers to a plot device or development that serves to almost supernaturally resolve tangled conflict or rescue characters when all hope seems lost and no other solution seems possible. Its name comes from the days of ancient Greek theater when a divine character would be lowered into the middle of the climax by a crane or similar “machine” to right all the wrongs, punish the bad, reward the good, and straighten out what otherwise appeared to be a hopelessly complicated plot. And from its first uses, deus ex machina has been criticized as the crutch used by lazy or unskilled authors who either don’t care enough to figure out a realistic solution to their characters’ problems or who failed to construct a plot that can be resolved believably (in the universe of the story).
In modern literature, deus ex machina occurs when an author brings in a completely unlooked-for solution to what seems like an otherwise hopeless problem or plot tangle. For example, the main character in a suspense novel is backed into a corner at gunpoint in a concrete bunker 100 feet underground, the police don’t know where he is, the bad guy is about to pull the trigger– and an earthquake occurs, knocking the bad guy to his feet and unconscious, breaking down the concrete door, and making a clear path to the exit. The word “earthquake” has never been used before this point in the novel, no one has mentioned fault lines or cave-ins, and they’re not even in California, so there truly was no indication up to the point of the earthquake that an earthquake might occur, and so this development comes completely out of left field. This often annoys readers who were enjoying the complicated plot and the thrill of the nail-biting scene– while they do want resolution, and they enjoy being suprised by how you accomplish it, they don’t want to feel fooled by it, and they definitely don’t want to feel like the author just made something up on the spot, as is usually the case when a plot twist comes out of nowhere with no framing or set-up earlier in the story.
The way to avoid giving your readers the impression that you aren’t playing fair or that you weren’t able to solve your own plot problems, while still maintaining suspense or managing to suprise your reader, is to lay careful groundwork for whatever device you’re ultimately going to use to save the day or resolve the plot tangles. For example, if an earthquake is the only way you can get your main character out of that jam in the bunker, you’re going to need to make at least one reference to earthquakes before the fateful moment, even if it’s just a joke early on about “The only way this day could get worse is if we had an earthquake.” Of course, depending on the tone of your book, you may prefer a more serious reference, such as the main character half-listening in a geology class while the professor drones on about how “the region of such-and-such desert is overdue for an earthquake,” or the bad guy bragging that “it’s no use screaming, the bunker walls are thick enough to withstand a 6.0 earthquake.” Even just these tiny little breadcrumbs are enough to change a reader’s perception of the earthquake from an overly convenient random invention of the author’s to the carefully planned master stroke on a brilliantly constructed plot. Think about your plot like a mystery novel– the point is not to withhold all the important clues so your reader has no chance of solving the mystery until the detective character discloses a lot of information that only he was privy to, but to weave the clues and information artfully throughout the plot with enough misdirection and emphasis placed on other things that they don’t hit the reader over the head with their significance so that the reader is still surprised/impressed when the detective puts everything together. This should be the way you approach your surprise endings and your unlooked-for solutions or rescues- you want your reader to say, “Oh, I see how they did that!” instead of, “Where did THAT come from?”
Now, there are times when an author truly does want to employ deus ex machina. True deus ex machina, when the savior from above truly has no precedent in the rest of the story, can be very funny– a common example is the scene from a Monty Python movie set in first century Isreal in which a man who has fallen from a tower after being chased is caught by a passing alien ship– that’s the only sci-fi element in the whole thing, and the aliens don’t figure in the rest of the plot at all, they simply appear out of nowhere to solve that one problem and then disappear, to great comedic effect. You may also want to employ deus ex machina for artistic reasons– if a theme of your novel is that life is unexpected, or that people have no control over the events of their lives, then you might be able to get away with a brand new character or a random car accident saving the day at the last minute.
Ultimately, you want to be familiar with deus ex machina so that you can make very deliberate decisions about how to lay the groundwork (or not) for the means by which you resolve your plot tangles, tie up loose ends, and get your characters out of trouble so that you are sure that your readers are surprised when you want them to be without losing confidence in your plotting abilities.