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.
I think I could handle the “writing myself into a corner” part. Thanks for the lesson. I love this blog!
Those who are put into a corner tend to fight harder. That could make for an interesting scenario 😉 We are so happy that you enjoy this blog, Dan.
Are you sure you weren’t an English professor in a previous life, Amanda? I love the examples you gave because they made your points come alive and I could definitely think of novels that irked me at the end because they pulled Hail Mary’s….Thanks for the great post.
Thanks, Marcy! I really hope that I love. Dissecting literature is so much fun. It is a lot of fun to list out those novels and movies (Jurassic Park 3 for me) that irk us with the bad use of this device.
We all need plot twists, whether characters solve problems or run into them. Our task, as writers, seems to be to put subtle hints in, perhaps disguised in lists or misdirections, that, once something or someone happens, our readers experience Ah Ha, rather than No Way.
And, if we plot our novels before we write our first drafts, and then outline before we start our revisions, we can see what bread crumbs we need to sprinkle in.
Love your comment, Silent, and the analogy of the “sprinkling of breadcrumbs” for those little teasers or clarifications that we need to add to the plot. You are so correct in everything you say of what details the job of the writer. The reader must say ‘Ah ha!’… ‘No way’ is a game killer.
Chris Musgraves – if you are reading this, here is another vote for PLOTTER in the plotting vs. pantsing saga! (Go Team Plotters!)
Loved this post. Discussing this device reminds me of the best use of it I’ve seen: in “Toy Story III” (yes, I have small children) when [SPOILER ALERT] Woody and his friends are literally plucked from destruction by a giant claw. The great thing is, it concluded a gag that began in “Toy Story I” and continued in “Toy Story II.”
Here’s my defense of “Lord of the Flies”: 1) After having to endure Piggy’s death and Simon’s, I don’t think I could have taken Ralph’s death too. 2) I thought the appearance of the Navy officer was bitterly ironic since the boys crash landed on the island after being evacuated from a war; the “rescue” is likely to return them to the ongoing savagery of the grown up world. Ralph survives, but there’s no recovering what he’s lost. The officer’s criticism of the children adds to the irony in that they at least have the decency to weep over what they’ve done while he, no doubt, will return without remorse to the grown up war and killing. In other words, I think the rescue by this deus ex machina is a very ambivalent one, definitely not all’s well that ends well; only the *appearance* of order has been restored.
Last, I absolutely agree with you about “Breakfast of Champions.” It was the first Vonnegut novel I read, is absolutely brilliant, and dismantled all my ideas about what you could and couldn’t do in a novel (never before or since have I read a novel that so effectively employs a drawing of an asshole). Thanks for reminding me to read Vonnegut whenever I start boxing myself in as a writer.
What is it with last movies in a trilogy?! I had a fit over “the claw” scene in Toy Story III and also at the “military to the rescue” scene in Jurassic Park III. I am probably the biggest JP nut in the world, and the 3rd movie left me in tears of hate with the horrible deus ex machina ending.
I have this horrible obsession with analyzing literature, and your comment made the hamster wheel in my head start spinning. Also, I have been working non-stop on my novel for the past two days, so I needed to break from the creative realm. So this is going to be a little long…
For the Lord of the Flies ending, I don’t disagree with you that the appearance of the Navy officer was a bad ending as it was a crucial closure to the story. What I do disagree with was how it was presented.
There is not enough evidence “sprinkled” in the plot of the story to say that there is the potential that a “rescue” is a possibility for the boys. As a reader, we need to be let in on these things. The characters don’t need to be informed, but the reader does or unrealistic endings like this happens. The Officer’s appearance to the reader is shocking and out of place, leaving the reader to feel like he or she was blindsided. There were only 2 mentions of possible salvation within the story: 1) Simon’s suggestion to build a signal fire & 2) A sentence that states there are ship routes nearby. But those are not enough references, especially since they were mentioned in the beginning of the story, and would easily be forgotten later in the text.
Golding could have simply solved this by adding in more phrases by the narrator that mentioned the physicality of the ship, like “a ship on the horizon that is missed by the boys” or something to that extent. Little clues to the reader to say that help is physically coming… but will it arrive in time (which that would add a whole new layer of suspense to the story).
You are right, the appearance of the Officer is the only justifiable conclusion. The Officer represented civilized society and humanity reaching out to the boys to pull them back to where they belong. Since they were stranded on a “deserted” island, there is no way that the boys would ever been able to return to the status of a civilized society on their own. Ralph, Piggy, and Simon were the civilized society, and the “civilized society” was being killed off.
Your comment about the Officer’s arrival is “only the *appearance* of order has been restored” is interesting. I had not thought about that when I read the story “too-many-years-to-admit” ago. It definitely wouldn’t be “all’s well that ends well”. These boys had a life altering experience on this island. They hunted and KILL human beings. For those in Jack’s crew, their morality has been severely compromised. And to an extent, Ralph’s may be too. Not one of these boys will be the same person that they were before they arrived to the island, and in many cases there will be boys who will take on a darker personality. They could/would become a new danger to civilized society.
Thank you for getting the hamster running and maybe we can talk Vonnegut someday! 🙂 You also helped me to think about some points within my own novel. I have your words on a sticky note: “I think the rescue by this deus ex machina is a very ambivalent one, definitely not all’s well that ends well; only the *appearance* of order has been restored.”
I hope my words aren’t running around in your head too much; when they run around in my head, they drive me crazy. Hence the need for me to write them down and get them out. I totally get your reaction to deus ex machina endings. Ultimately, though, I think it boils down to reader and writer preferences. Some people quarrel with what Golding did, some don’t, but it’s still recognized as a terrific novel. Same with the planner v. pantser debate. Dickens not only published his novels in serials, he also wrote them that way (unlike Trollope who didn’t serialize anything until he’d completed the whole work). If he hadn’t, he’d actually have some sort of finished outline to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and we wouldn’t have to wonder how it turned out! Like you, I do enjoy literary analysis, but I ended up studying creative writing and composition instead because I have more fun looking at what writers do rather than what they ought to do. In fact, it fascinates me when a writer breaks all sorts of rules (of process, of structure, or logic, of form) and yet, somehow, the damn thing works anyway. Which brings me back to Vonnegut: You shouldn’t be able to write a novel with a guy traveling through time and ending up with a porn star, or a novel full of child-like drawings, and yet manage to make profound statements about humanity. But Vonnegut did. That kind of unlikely magic act is what gives me hope.
I do enjoy hearing your thoughts. Good luck with the novel. 🙂
I rather enjoy the chaos that you stirred up. It made me think.
In the end – despite opinions on the ending 😉 – Golding did write a phenomenal, if not earth-shattering, novel.
I try to be fascinated by people who break the rules – and break them beautifully. Often, I slip into my logical side and my creative side has to scream to shut up. There are writers out there who doing things like Vonnegut. And Vonnegut is magic, he exquisitely broke every damn rule in the book!
I am interested in your studies on creative writing and composition, as your blog is inspirational. I studied literary analysis, creative writing, and technical writing (so I am always conflicted between those two writing worlds).
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That has been happening in a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately too. I think what I hate worse then deus ex machina is when an author it while attaching a dialogue along the lines of ‘isn’t this deus ex machina?’ and having a second character say ‘that only happens in books!’ or similar sort of internal dialogue.
I’m not certain why some authors feel that stating it in the open makes it any less of a deus ex machina…
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