You may or may not have heard this term thrown around a lot when you’re writing and reading. It’s actually a massive problem in a lot of stories, published or otherwise, and can leave a reader feeling frustrated, unfulfilled and lost when it comes to tying up the loose ends of your story. Deus ex machina takes away the ability of the reader to immerse in the action, while simultaneously making you seem like a lazy and unskilled writer. But what exactly is this weird Latin term and how can you avoid it?
In Latin, ‘deus ex machina’ means something along the lines of ‘God from a machine’. It refers, in short, to when Greek plays would have a God character suspend from the stage on a crane and swiftly solve all of the remaining problems at the end. No mess, no fuss. God did it. No questions asked. Now it’s come to mean any character that pops out of nowhere to solve a problem (or all the problems) without any prior warning or mention. It can be quite a tempting tool, frankly: when you’re stuck with writer’s block and don’t know how to conclude this elaborate tale you’ve concocted, what better way to solve the glaring plot holes than to plaster them up with a new, unknown character?
Well, I say no. Euripides may have been a fan of that style of writing, and it may have worked for him, but does no one else remember that “what the hell” reaction when a seemingly impossible (and therefore massively intriguing) problem is solved with the wave of some random person’s wand? It’s lazy and useless most of the time. You’re cutting corners and robbing your readers of a genuinely good ending.
This is especially true in the Fantasy genre that my stories call home. You see, when you’re creating a story that has a lot of plot points that are unrealistic in our world, you need to make sure that these points are grounded with some rules and limitations which work for the world you’ve built. While these characters are not limited in the same way that we are, they should find that there are limits in their world that they are stuck adhering to – and that these can be just as oppressive as those in ours, even if they are different. In Harry Potter, Rowling made it very clear that magic cannot bring people back from the dead fully. Even the Resurrection Stone doesn’t truly and entirely resurrect people, and that’s the thing that drives its original owner mad. Characters can be healed of the common cold and other ailments that muggles are also exposed to, but when it comes to magical diseases, nothing known to wizards can cure Lupin of his Lycanthropy (werewolf disease). These are limits that these stories stick to throughout. Even when they seem like they’re being broken, the reason for this is explained in great detail. Adding deus ex machina into fantasy is way too much to ask an audience for when they’re already suspending their disbelief on the idea that the whole universe exists. Could you imagine how disingenuous and cheap all the emotions you felt throughout Harry Potter would be if, at the end of the series, God appeared and saved all our favourite characters, healed Harry’s scar and cured Lupin of his Lycanthropy? It would make every single one of the characters’ struggles seem pointless, and probably leave you with more questions than answers.
The truth is that people are supposed to struggle. The thing that makes these stories true and poignant, regardless of what world they are set in, is that toils are part of what makes us, as people, realistic. All of your favourite fantasy novels share this detail. The characters go through their issues and are changed because of their experiences, for the better or worse. How can we understand, empathise with and worry about characters whose problems are all fixed with a giant, universe-sized plaster? As much as we would all love for that character to survive or those two lovers to end up together, just inventing a whole new force or random plot point to make it happen cheapens all those tears we shed for them in the first place. Don’t toy with my emotions, writers. I want to know that, like me in my everyday life, no one is going to come and solve all the issues with no strings attached. I want to know that these characters have to work hard to make a difference in their lives, just like I do. It doesn’t matter if they’re battling a dragon and I’m battling depression and anxiety. All that matters is that the strength to fix things comes from within and through the already established plot elements, not from some artificial solution.
So the usual question: what can we do about it? How can we avoid it? What’s the solution? I hate to say it, but planning is probably the best way about it. To avoid needing to shove in a solution to plot holes in the first place, you can plan how these issues are going to be resolved even before you get caught in that trap. If a character appears suddenly and serves the purpose of a deus ex machina, hinting of their existence and adding them in here and there throughout the story makes it much less fake that they end up helping to resolve the plot. That makes me sound like such a hypocrite because I am probably the worst person when it comes to planning anything. I can’t even plan what I’m going to eat for lunch today. I seek solace in my lack of planning using the following quote from George R. R. Martin:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George R. R. Martin
I’m definitely a gardener. I sit there from my little gardener’s chair and procrastinate for the whole of my life until I finally see where the plot is going to take me next. So how do I solve my issues? I feel like it’s important to mention because I’m sure Martin and I aren’t the only gardeners out there. Well, I do kinda plan a little bit. I’m broadly aware of where my story is going and where I want it to end up. I fully develop as many characters as possible and give as much information about my world, politics and magic. Generally, I make sure that my story is fully comprehensive and explored throughout my story so that, when I find some inescapable plot hole, I can syphon through my dusty tomes of things I’ve said before and find a resolution using what I’ve already established. The more information you give about your world, the easier you’ll find it to fix a plot hole when it arises.
For example, I wanted Evanna to have an assassination attempt on her life when she was still at Merry’s in The Queen of Freaks, but I didn’t want her to die. When I got to that point in the story, I found that I had, in my attempt to make all of my characters as three-dimensional as possible, revealed that Theo is a healer and that an angel, Historia, is attempting to get in contact with Evanna. I’ll be honest with you: when I first introduced Historia, it was because I wanted Evanna to become aware of Limbo, but I had no real reason why Historia was so desperate to talk to her. When I was pulling my hair out and trying to find a way for Evanna to survive, it suddenly occurred to me to hit two birds with one stone: I could make Historia’s purpose to warn Evanna and use Limbo as a way to save her! It was even better because I had already established that Vince was from one of the remaining Faerie family lines so it would make sense that he would know how to get to Limbo and therefore Historia could warn him. By providing so much seemingly ‘useless’ information about my characters in passing, I’m saving myself lots of headaches and possible deus ex machina in the future.
So, unless you’re purposefully using deus ex machina to make a silly joke in your story and actively pointing out that you’re using it, I hope I’ve managed to convince you why you should avoid it at all costs. I have some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is that you’ll probably see this everywhere now and you won’t be able to get it out of your head, just like me! You’ll start banging your head on your desk when you realised you’ve used it. The good news is… hey, at least you may know what annoys you about certain stories now. Plus, you know what to avoid to make your story seem more genuine and less lazy. Good luck writing!