Deus Ex Machina : When To Avoid It and How To Make It Work

Deus Ex Machina

By Devon Forward & Joel Mendoza

Deus Ex Machina: When To Avoid It and How To Make It Work 

While many writers are likely familiar with the term “deus ex machina,” many may not know what it means, where it originated, or more importantly, how it can help or hinder your screenplay.

In literary terms, deus ex machina (Machine of the Gods) is a plot device where a seemingly impossible conflict or problem is solved by the sudden appearance of an unexpected person, object, or event. Deus ex machina does not have to refer to a literal machine—it can be the emergence of a new character, a surprising use of magic, or even the realization that “it was all just a dream.”

While every writer wants their story to smoothly close by wrapping up loose ends and giving their characters happy endings, deus ex machina is viewed by many as an easy way out. It’s a decision many creators feel forced to make when they write themselves into a corner and have no way out, except the hope of a miracle.

Generally, it’s something you want to avoid, and it’s certainly not something you want to rely on to finish your stories. Is there a way to steer clear of using this plot device, and is there a way to implement it successfully? The simple answer: Yes and yes.

Origination

The term deus ex machina is a Latin phrase originating in ancient Grecian theatre literally translating to “god of the machine,” and was used as a reference to plays that featured actors playing gods. They would be lowered from above into a scene by a crane device known as a “mechane.” 

Over time, the term grew to have a broader meaning, referring to the involvement of an outside force to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. In traditional stories like The Odyssey, this commonly came in the shape of a god or goddess, like Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, appearing to stop a battle. 

In contemporary film, the term is commonly used to refer to an event, or character that appears, seemingly out of nowhere, without a clear introduction or set up, at a critical time in the story, with the primary purpose of solving and/or helping our protagonist to overcome their central obstacle.

When To Avoid Using

This plot device has continually been found in theatre, literature, and film in a variety of forms. Most of the time it’s looked down upon by writers as a plot device that too often feels unbelievable to the world of the story or feels more like a coincidence than a natural and organic turn of events.  

One of the most notorious uses of a deus ex machina that has been criticized for years is from Lord of the Rings. When Frodo and Sam are stranded on Mount Doom, they are rescued by giant eagles who appear out of nowhere. Author J.R.R. Tolkien uses the giant eagles to get his characters out of tough binds quite a few times in his stories, and it always seems out of place and unearned. Sometimes writers push their characters too far, to a point where there is no justifiable option of rescue. You don’t want to rely on “divine intervention” to fix anything. Don’t force your audience to take too large a leap of faith to buy into the resolution of your story. Keep it grounded and believable within the world of your story.

There are a few things to always keep in mind to avoid falling into this trap. First off, if you find that you’ve written your characters into a corner, just backtrack. Go through everything that happens up until then and rework your plot so that there’s no need for an out-of-place rescue. If you’ve built up a detailed and dynamic world, you shouldn’t have to ever resort to using a deus ex machina. By fully immersing yourself in the world of your characters, in their minds, and understanding how everything works in your story, you should always be able to come up with a solution that makes sense and feels well-deserved. 

Exceptions to the Rule: Great Uses of Deus Ex Machina and How To Make It Work

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule! Nothing’s completely black and white, and there are some instances where deus ex machina completely change the outcome of a story and not only do we not care, but it’s why we keep coming back for more. This usually happens when the twist makes sense within the world and context of the story. 

A prime example of Deus Ex Machina working to great effect is James Bond. The success of the entire franchise not only relies on, but ultimately thrives on the Deus ex Machina. Every time 007 finds himself in a seemingly desperate, inescapable situation (tied to a buzzsaw), the audience sit on the edge of their seat in anticipation of the handy new spy gadget he’ll pull from his sleeve, or who will appear to spare Bond his fate for another day. It’s why we keep coming back for more.

Another genius use of Deus Ex Machina is Chris Nolan’s Inception. The basis of the film is blurring that line between dream and reality so that just when we think all is lost and we are thrust to realize “oh, but it was all just a dream”, it doesn’t seem so much of a disappointment (nor a Deus Ex Machina) as it fits seamlessly into the world and plays to into the themes of the movie. It doesn’t surprise, nor feel out of place.

To understand how and when this plot device does work, let’s recognize in both examples, how the machine fits seamlessly in context of the characters and the story. As such, the audience never stops to question what is happening. Rather, it feels organic to the story and as a result, the audience are receptive to the idea and it is easy for them to take that leap of faith and buy into the narrative surprise hook, line, and sinker.

If you feel like the world you’ve created and the story you’re telling are crazy enough that a deus ex machina would actually add something to the script, then it might be worth giving it a try. But you never want to rely on a deus ex machina or find yourself resorting to this plot device because you can’t think of anything better. To use a deus ex machina successfully, it should be a choice, and it must work within the world of your story. 

Overall, deus ex machina is a hard plot device to implement well, so use it at your own risk. Otherwise, I recommend novice writers steer clear of this plot device. 


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