Lately, I have been stumbling across stories that contain the deus ex machina literary plot device. It is astounding how many authors attempt to use this device and often fail. Deus ex machina is not a well known device, and I hesitated to write about the plot device as there is much criticism against it. But you know me, I like writing about things that are often criticized.
The deus ex machina plot device is a tactic introduced when a writer writes himself or herself into a corner when he or she is unable to resolve an issue or conflict. In most cases the use of the device is ad hoc and not well planned out, often resulting in a failed attempt to create a resolution that leaves the reader angry and unimpressed. Though, when used correctly, it can provide an element of thrill or comic relief.
Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase that means “god out of the machine”. It originated during the Greek theatre era where actors, who had the role of a deity, were strung up on a crane-like contraption and lower onto the stage to instantly resolve a conflict. The criticism around this device is that if a conflict takes route that cannot be resolved, the author would introduce a divine character in the storyline to immediately wrap up the conflict. The divine character, quite literally, appears out of thin air, swoops in, and steals away all problems. This allows the main characters to go about their merry way and the reader is left to scratch his or her head in confusion. In its poorest fashion, the deus ex machine literary device is a complete cop out. Lord of the Flies is a one of the best examples of poor use of the deus ex machina device. At the conclusion of the book, a Naval personnel happens upon the castaway island, right before Ralph is about to become mincemeat at the hands of the hunting party, saving all the adolescent boys from becoming lost to their primal tendencies. This Navy character’s appearance is sudden, jolting the reader out of the suspense and turmoil that is being played out between Ralph and the other boys.
While I personally feel that the Lord of the Flies story is one of the best dystopian novels in existence (and a favorite of mine), the ending left me irked. I felt robbed and it seemed like William Golding was in a rush to wrap up the conflict. That he just threw in the Naval officer as an afterthought. In order to make the conclusion less jarring, he should have added more foreshadowing about a naval vessel canvassing the waters around the island, or something to that degree.
When efficiently used, the deus ex machina device can be a mark of a true genius. Very few authors have been able to master its use. Shakespeare leverages the device very well in a few of his comedies and tragedies. For example, in As You Like It Hymenaios suddenly attends the wedding disguised as Forest of Arden to sort out Rosalind’s problems. Leading up to this scene, there were details of the event defined and so the reader would not be caught off guard by the appearance of disguised Hymenaios. Shakespeare used the device again in Hamlet, where Fortinbras arrival pretty much nixes any attempt of anarchy within Denmark. Again, the use of foreshadowing prevented Fortinbras from seemingly appearing from thin air and saving the day.
However, Shakespeare poorly used the device in the Merchant of Venice when Portia tells Antonio that all of his ships have come to port, even though throughout the story it is said that the fleet had been destroyed. His entire life rested on the arrival of his ships and the conflict was solved with Portia’s lines of reassurance of the ships making port. There are no details or explanation as to how the ships survived the storm or how the rumor started that the fleet was lost. The audience / reader is left in mystery of what really occurred.
As you can see from these examples, the use of this device has ranged from poor to exceptional, which leaves the device in much criticism as it is mostly not utilized in the best scenarios. However, as a writer you should not fear it. You should be experimental with your writing, giving the deus ex machina device a try and the critics a run for their money!
If you ever write yourself into a corner and think that the deus ex machina path is your only way out, or if you want to experiment with the device, just take into account these four thoughts:
1. Don’t pull a Hail Mary pass and drop in a God-like character to save the day. Revise your story and give that character a little background earlier on. That does not mean that the character has to make a full appearance within the earlier scenes, but references or foreshadowing the character will not make his or her appearance seem so sudden.
2. Don’t allow your deus ex machina character to disappear as suddenly as he or she appears. Allow that character to have a little screen time and purpose in your story, other than just to instantly appear to solve the “unresolvable” conflict.
3. Plot and plan the use of this device. If you can shape and mold the dues ex machina in such a way that it is agile with your plot, then damn, you are going to have one interesting and memorable story. If the idea comes to you to use this device, THINK about how you are going to introduce it and how it will play out in your story.
4. Be unique with the device. Add your own creativity and spin to it. If you have no read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, do it now. The way he explores this device is pure genius. Trust me, it will be memorable and hopefully inspirational.