How to correctly use a “Deus-Ex-Machina” and not die trying
Deus Ex Machina, that narrative resource that many people hate more than clichés… Poor Deus Ex Machina, it’s not its fault if people don’t know how to use it, neither when it’s used to solve those situations that are impossible to solve.
Let’s start by explaining what we are talking about. Deus Ex Machina comes from Latin and means “God from the Machine”, and it’s an expression usually used in Greek and Roman theater. When the actors were faced with a problem or a conflict, a crane (machine) introduced another actor from outside the scene, usually some deity or divine figure (God), to solve this problem and thus allowing the plot continue.
Clearly, nowadays we don’t turn to Gods or cranes, but the term is used to refer to those moments in which the scene is solved through an element external to the plot. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a character, but it can also be an accident, a natural phenomenon, an explosion… something that happens suddenly and that wasn’t present in the plot initially.
What NOT to do
I think I speak for most people when I say that all these Deus Ex Machina make us feel a little uncomfortable when they happen. I mean, really, they don’t make any sense and they take away a lot of depth to the story line. The character is saved by miracle because the antagonist is allergic to a bird that just flew by? Well, I haven’t seen anything like this, but there are some examples that irritate me a little.
First of all, I want to clarify that I’m a great Game of Thrones follower, so don’t take this as the usual hate to the saga. But let’s talk for a moment about Jon Snow, the “DeusExMachina man”.
This character has been saved by “divine forces” in many situations in which he found himself on the verge of death: in the Battle for The Wall, Olly saves him just in time from Brigitte’s vengeance (this doesn’t happen in the book, but i’s a good example). Later on, the Battle is resolved only because Stannis Baratheon arrived with his army and forced the Savages to surrender. And what about the Battle of the Bastards? Did Jon Snow win by his feats as a strategist and a military commander? No. He won only because Sansa had the idea to ask the Knights of the Valley for help at the last moment. And in the last season, if it weren’t for Daenerys and for Benjen Stark, just forget about seeing Jon live on. Well, let’s not mention that Stannis’s Deus Ex Machina also brought the tool to bring Jon Snow back to life…
But one case that bothers me a lot is that of the movie Kingdom of Heaven. The main character, played by Orlando Bloom, shipwrecks during the first thirty minutes of the film. And only HE and HIS horse survive. None of all the other horses on the ship, nor any other crewmember, survive. Only HIM and HIS horse…
What do I mean by all this? Deus Ex Machina is an interesting resource, but it has to be implemented correctly. If your characters are going to survive by miracle, do not just make up something to save them. It doesn’t matter if there are clues along the way, saving the characters just because, takes away consistency from both the story and the very characters themselves.
What to do
As I said recently, the secret is to implement it correctly. How? Well, there are a couple of tricks.
First, a good way to use a Deus Ex Machina without being too shocking is when our characters encounter something or someone by accident which helps to guide the plot. Of course, it must be done properly, without it being too clumsy.
For example, in a story that I wrote, my group of protagonists arrived on a small mountain town, and right there they heard within a tavern a conversation between some servants of the plot antagonists. But this isn’t a simple coincidence, since these servants are present in many towns, trying to take control of them discreetly. The fact is fortuitous, yes, but it isn’t unlikely. The important thing is always to point to the probability of something happening (and, please, I’m not talking about statistics, but common sense!).
Another good way to justify a Deus Ex Machina is to explain it. When something happens suddenly and forces the plot to follow this or that direction, giving context or develop what happened can be quite useful. An interesting resource is to use memories or flashbacks, in which we will see what happened before our Deus Ex Machina.
It would be a way to “camouflage” it, if you will. In the prologue of my book “The End of Men”, the protagonist is suddenly rescued by his lifelong rival; but it’s logical that this happens: both live in a neighborhood of the suburbs and have spent all their childhood and part of their adolescence facing each other. Again, it’s a matter of probability and context.
And another excellent way is to anticipate it. The best example I have for this is the Battle of Helm’s Deep, in the Lord of the Rings. Do you remember that Gandalf tells Aragorn that he will arrive on time?
Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East.
What happens here is that, in the vertigo of the action, both in the book and in the film, we forget this quote. We are focused in the battle, and when Gandalf suddenly arrives with the whole contingent of horsemen, it seems that he has miraculously arrived to save them all. But it’s not a miracle, it’s what the same story told you was going to happen.
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger
If you have been able to make a solid story and have planned the structure of it, you shouldn’t be afraid of using your Deus Ex Machina. When everything is settled and anticipated beforehand, there is no need to worry about inventing miracles to solve our situations.
The best way to avoid the Deus Ex Machina is to carry out a thorough prior planning of the plot and the story. In this way, it is easy to anticipate complicated situations. We will have our context already established, the guiding thread of the plot and the main plot twists.
Improvising can be fun, and it’s beautiful to let our imagination fly. But in order to give strength to our stories, it’s necessary that we sit down to work properly.
And, warning, giving strength to our story doesn’t mean to cut the wings of your creativity!