Know the Technique: Deus Ex Machina

So today I’m launching  a series of posts dedicated to explaining common (and sometimes uncommon) literary techniques.

My first post will be about the wonderful deus ex machina, that is more often abused than used in a way that benefits the story being written.

Deus Ex Machina

noun

an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.

 

More likely than not, all readers have experienced different versions of the deus ex machina throughout literary works. It’s actually quite common, though some authors use it often and others not so much at all. A couple examples off the top of my head… the sword coming out of the hat in Harry Potter, Clary just suddenly being all like “oh well I’ll just try and draw this random rune..” and discovering she has some insane power at the beginning of the Mortal Instruments series, the end of Lord of the Rings where golum appears out of nowhere and takes the ring back, but also falls into the lava… after having previously been showed mercy by Sam or Frodo (I don’t remember who).

Essentially, you can call most events that seem completely random and are in favour of the main character a deus ex machina, as long as there are no serious consequences toward that character for using it.

 

So just for clarification, here’s an example that wouldn’t quality as a deus ex machina:

Your character is already established as an incredibly powerful wizard, so it’s likely that they’ve got some tricks up their sleeves. Now, they’re in a situation where they’re fighting against 10 super ninja warriors… so he’s basically screwed. However, he manages to use a spell that kills them all, knocks himself unconscious, and gets himself captured because he obviously can’t do anything while unconscious.

And here’s a situation that would be considered a deus ex machina:

Your character is a super badass wizard, and they’re in a situation where they’ve encountered 10 super ninja warriors. Think he’s screwed? Think again! He uses one of his super badass wizardry spells that’s only charged and usable on a specific day every month and kills all of the ninjas with a wave of his hand. Of course, he also walks away as if he just woke up after a nice long nap.

When is Deus Ex Machina a Good Thing?

Actually (this is strictly my opinion), it’s not. I don’t like reading about them; they make the book annoying to read and usually piss me off. However, sometimes they can be believable, and it’s up to you, the author, to determine whether you could get away with using a deus ex machina without digging yourself or your characters into a hole. I would suggest being very cautious about when you use this technique, as overusing is the worst thing you can do in this situation.

Tips for Avoiding the Deus Ex Machina

1. Make the situation believable.

Simply put, if your character got into a situation because of their own actions, it should be their own actions that get them out. If your character suddenly remembers he has some magical rock in his pocket that will teleport him away from his current location the moment he gets into danger, someone is going to face palm.

2. Always have consequences.

If there’s going to be an event where it seems like there’s no way your character is going to get out of it, but you, as the author, know that your character has to survive for the story to go on, make it so the only way out has a drawback. That super powerful spell that your wizard can use to save him and his friends? Make it so he can’t use magic for another month after, or something like that. Or if the time is right, kill off a different character that will cause a huge change in your main character’s actions. There are literally endless possibilities for negative effects of saving your characters behind like that, so there’s no excuse to make the situation seem like “luck” or bad plotting.

 

I hope you guys found this useful!

~Erynn

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