1. nygiants_0000
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    nygiants_0000 New Member

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    Deus ex machina- is it poor storytelling?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by nygiants_0000, Feb 2, 2011.

    Hey there,
    I’m coming to the end of my novel and it only now that I’m starting to realize that my ending is, in fact, a deus ex machina. I always had the belief that the use of a deus ex machina ending is seen as poor storytelling. Certainly, in Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets I found the ending to be rather poor is that respect. So what is the general consensus through this forum regarding deus ex machina.
    Many thanks.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    In the vast majority of cases, I feel it is poor story-telling. It is an ancient literary device, so I suppose it could be used to good effect in certain cases, but as a general rule I'd avoid it.
     
  3. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Deux Ex Machina ---> Solving the problem via some newly introduced person, object etc.

    Honestly, I'm not a big fan of it -- if something pops up to save the day, it better have been introduced earlier on, and the way it comes into the scene it better not be lame and contrived.

    There are exceptions to everything, but 90 percent of the time I find it a bad idea. It seems like laziness on the part of the author and kind of a "wtf moment" for the reader. To me, it feels like the author got stuck and introduced a whimsically too-convenient plot device.

    Just my input. :)
     
  4. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    I think this is key.

    A saying I've been told is "plant the ax on the wall," meaning if an ax is going to be used to kill somebody in Act III we should see it hanging on the wall above the fireplace or whatever in Act I--or, things that make a big difference in the story shouldn't come totally out of the blue. Another saying is that you should aim for your big plot events to be "surprising yet inevitable"--ideally, your reader goes "Why the heck didn't I see that coming?"

    So, there's a possibility that what you could do about the deus ex machina is to go back and connect it better with the plot and foreshadow it.

    There's another wrinkle to this, though, and I don't know if it's just me, but it seems to me like the climax/ending should involve a choice on the part of the main character. Whether it's him/her or someone else who saves the day, I feel like it should make some difference what he/she chooses. Even if it's just like in the first Indiana Jones movie: he doesn't kill the Nazis, but he does close his eyes.
     
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  5. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    You can, though, introduce it on the spot in the first draft, then write it into the second right from the start. Give it a secondary plot purpose along the way, and then it won't bother anyone when it's used as it was in the first draft. :)
     
  6. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Thing is, sometimes stuff like this happens in real life. So, yes, it could happen in your story. Guess it depends on what and how. Anything too convenient could bug people.

    Anyway, the question of whether or not to do it is a good question. Luckily, tomorrow, the world's greatest literary expert is gonna join the forum and post a final conclusion, so it'll solve the dilemma for all of us!!!
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Yes, this. I hate convenience endings where things magically fall in place. The worst ones are the ones where the MC's lover steps in and solves all his/her problems for her (like people in love can't stand on their own).
     
  8. Honorius
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    Honorius Active Member

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    The only really solid, purposeful time in which Deus ex is appropriate is in a story similar to one of the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy books. The whole book of the point is to be ridiculous, so Deus ex fits in perfectly, especially if the introduced element is especially absurd.

    The only other way to apply it that I can think of is to take it literally. "God from the Machine" Could be an interesting element or theme to a story.
     
  9. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    Someone made the point to me that of course an event totally unrelated to anything else can happen in a story (because, like you say, it happens in real life!), but if you're going to have something like that happen, you'd do better to start your story at that moment than end it there.
     
  10. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Good point, Heather. Also, it can happen in the middle, or whatever. One of the things that inspired me is a story of a woman named Brigitte Gabriel. She's a Christian Lebanese who lived through the civil war there. People were entering villages and murdering others. Everyone who knows about that only remembers Sabra and Shatila, two Muslim villages where Christians slaughtered people, but there were many other villages, and people on both sides did the slaughtering.

    When Brigitte Gabriel was 13, she knew she was a day away from death, because the Muslims were getting closer. Incidently, the day she was supposed to die, was the day that Israel has made the controversial decision of invading Lebanon, in 1982, because the Lebanese authorities wouldn't stop terrorists who attacked Northern Israel. If Israel hadn't done that, or if Israel had done it one day later, Brigitte Gabriel would not be alive today. It's quite fascinating to hear her story. As a child, she hated both the Jews and the Muslims, and it's interesting to hear her experiences. She heard the same stuff that people hear about Jews all over the middle east, and in other regions of the world, but when she got to be there, as a child, she saw it was completely different from what she was taught.
     
  11. nygiants_0000
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    nygiants_0000 New Member

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    The premise for my story is that a conspiracy is playing out in a small South Pacific island state where a group of people are setting up murders and crimes on certain people. The small nation hires externally a veteran American detective who uses this investigation as his final case before retiring. I introduce the detective upon his arrival in the nation via a point of view but I don’t choose to dwell on his investigation. A few chapters later, the people in the conspiracy learn that the detective has resigned due to health reasons and has in fact left the nation. The detective is replaced with a native detective who clumsily deals with the investigation. On New Year’s Eve the President receives a phone call from the American detective stating that he has uncovered the conspiracy–and the President’s role in said conspiracy– and that he had to defect for safety reasons. The resulting aftermath leads to the dramatic conclusion.

    Would this be considered poor story-telling? In that, the seemingly perfect conspiracy is foiled just like that. It’s just that this is the way I always pictured it playing out.
    The novel really isn't fully about the conspiracy per se, so I don't want to throw in a whole new investigation sub-story.

    Many thanks for any comments.
     
  12. ArtWander
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    ArtWander Contributing Member

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    If it truly is an ending revolving around this plot device, I would say that it should be revised. Most of the time (unless told very well), Deus Ex Machina can be picked up easily by readers and is generally seen as lazy writing. I'd say go ahead and give it to someone to read, then see if they detected such a device...if not, then I'd say you're good :)
     
  13. Forkfoot
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    Forkfoot Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you find yourself tempted to Deus ex it, you may be trying to force a happy resolution upon a story that wasn't meant to have one.
     
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  14. nickbedford
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    nickbedford Member

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    Prior to Series 5 Doctor Who, the Deus Ex Machina was used much too often.

    I think the DEM goes against my own natural feeling of story telling. Things in real life are more platonic.

    In previous Doctor Who, for example, some major devastation affecting peoples' lives immensely would be fixed and then even further, wound back, so that the whole episode was basically redundant.

    Life is never like that. Things have consequences, they take time to heal or to adjust back to normal and typically never the same.

    Deus ex machina isn't always that far fetched but I feel it's too abrupt in how it solves a story.
     
  15. nickbedford
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    nickbedford Member

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    It's too abrupt, but it's probably not as obvious as some other instances of a deus ex machina.

    I would pose questions like this to myself:

    • How did he discover the conspiracy?
    • If it was your American investigator that discovered it, he is your protagonist, right? Or a major character?
    • Was it an accidental discovery, since he had resigned and left the country?
    • How did he manage to call the president?
    • Did he have to leap through hoops of resistance to make sure he could contact the president, only to be just on time to prevent a tragedy of occurring (which sparked the lead to the conclusion)?
    • How did the conclusion come about? Was the call merely the catalyst in another major part of the story where the conspirators are tracked with difficulty and eventually arrested/captured/'dealt with'?

    The thing with deus ex machina is that it's just plain too easy. You have to make things interesting. Stir up the pot.
     
  16. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    Yes, I agree. An MC should at least go through one try/fail cycle before a resolution is reached.
     
  17. Spacer
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    Spacer Active Member

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    That's the working title of a novel I have on the back burner. It's resolved in the normal modern way. However, the main character is a sentient machine and I call the "race" machina. For those who don't know, it's pronounced as with 'mechanism', not like 'machine'.
     
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  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm I have something approaching this in my book - it didn't save the day far from it, but I did bring in a ghost/angel type character to lighten the ending and to perform a task I couldn't see any other way to do. Hands up yes it was lazy storytelling on my part but without him the end wouldn't have had any moments of sanity and peace. In my first draft he had actually been there from the third chapter as one of my three wise ghosts. They got cut and I brought him back at the end of a prayer in the final chapter instead. So far those that have read it haven't mentioned him - I just honestly couldn't think of another way to transport something between worlds, my MC wasn't in a fit state to do it. Although it didn't give the story a happy ending it did save the universe and allow my MC to end the book with one last night of peaceful sleep.

    I don't mind lazy storytelling as long as the story is good and I like the ending. However it is better when not used.
     
  19. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Elgaisma, why not just keep the Angel dude person thing introduction early on in the story. A brief scene with him in it to make his presence known.

    The thing about Dues Ex Machina's is that they are random events/people/objects that magically appear to save the day to help wrap things up. It has no build up, no hints or clues or any tid bit of foreshadowing. It just happens and its almost always solves the days problems.

    Like a meteor striking down the villian at the last second. That would be one example... unless there was talk of a meteor shower coming up and how unusual it was that this particular part of the planet has far more then usual per year then anywhere else. Then its just... well then its just lucky timing. The whole meteor striking the villian was set up. Might not what you would expect, but it wouldn't fall under the category as Dues Ex Machina... atleast as far as I understand the concept.

    So instead of just randomly introducing this character of yours towards the end just as he is needed introduce him early on. You don't necessarily have to spell out what he does towards the end early on but you can sorta hint at the ability he uses.

    In your case it just seems like an easy way to avoid this.


    You know now that I think about it. I can't really think of any books or movies that have a Dues Ex Machina ending. I know I have read or seen something with it, but I just for the life of me can't remember any. I used to think The Stand had one... but then I read someone sorta explain how it wasn't and then I realized it really wasn't one. *shrugs*
     
  20. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It comes after a prayer to the Universal Father where my MC says he can't do this on his own. I want it clear this is a one off it is being allowed because of the extreme situatution the Universal Father is breaking the rules for it - if I have him popping in earlier it would mean he could come back after and that would give an easier way out for my MC, I don't think the kind solution fits, my MC needs to be really suffering by the end of the book or it makes what is a poweful scene right now tacky.

    He is mentioned earlier in the book because the 'angel' is my MCs birth father - I think I just about get away with it because he would be the natural choice and would want to be there for his son. Also this is god saving his own butt - if the event doesn't happen the Universal Father will die :) The angel doesn't really save the day as such - he does save the universe but it has happened at the expense of his son. He does the final act his son isn't capable of doing. I do kind of introduce an angel earlier on performing a different task not sure if it is staying though.
     
  21. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on what the plot is - i.e, what the source of conflict and suspense is in your story. If the suspense is generated by the need to uncover the conspiracy, uncovering it in this way could feel unsatisfactory to the reader. If your story generates suspense from the smaller conflicts which take place in the shadow of the conspiracy, then it's okay.

    A similar example: Imagine a story which takes place on a small island during World War II. There is a big conflict on the island (for example, between two local political factions), the resolution of which depends on who wins the war. Somewhere towards the end of the book, they find out who won, and the conflict is resolved.
    Since the reader knows who won World War II, and none of the characters on the island can do anything to affect it, the story obviously can't build suspense on which side wins. But a story like this can still be exciting and suspenseful, for example, if it focuses on the smaller conflicts between the characters, how they react to and deal with the big events, how they switch sides, and so on - because those smaller conflicts are not magically resolved by finding out who wins the war.

    If the conspiracy in your story is magically resolved through a phone call, it may be better to just be honest with the reader and let them know about it from the start. Let them follow the American agent in a sub-plot - a chapter here and there from his perspective - so it doesn't come as a surprise when the phone call arrives. If it's not a surprise, they won't feel cheated either. But it also means there needs to be something else in the story to build suspense on.
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It was criticised in ancient times too. It's always unsatisfying except, as has been pointed out, in a spoof like Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And even in HHGTTG the reason for frequent deuxes [1] ex machina is explained early on, in the form of the infinite improbability drive. So avoid: let the story go where it goes naturally. And no, the main protagonist did not wake up and find it was all a dream ;)

    [1] No, I can't do Latin declensions.
     
  23. jaywriting
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    jaywriting Member

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    I don't mind it to a degree, but prefer some earlier hints and references to other forces that might be at work, rather than having it thrust in as a lazy way to fix a plot that was poorly thought out.
     
  24. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd like to add that the problem with a deus ex machina is not only that it appears out of thin air, but also that it's unrelated to the struggles of the main characters. It happens regardless of what the main characters do, so their actions up to that point run the risk of becoming pointless.
     
  25. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    Wow, Birmingham. What a story. That would be worth writing.

    Elgaisma, what you say raises an interesting question we haven't talked about yet, which is the "deus" in deus ex machina--God, gods, or the supernatural. A Christian-fiction editor once commented to me that she was trying to talk one of her authors out of having an angel come in and save everyone at the end--classic d.e.m., & I agreed the author should be talked out of it--but on the other hand, the idea of being saved or rescued supernaturally is an inseparable part of a theistic worldview, so what do you do with that? Whether you're religious or just write fantasy with gods in it--what makes being rescued by a supernatural being OK?

    To take an initial stab at it myself... I like the Twelve Steps a lot and consider them a pretty good blueprint for what interaction with God looks like. Step 1 is admitting powerlessness to save yourself and that to me is essential. AA people will tell you that before Step 1 comes what they call "hitting bottom"--your life is just so bad you're forced to cut through your denial and face it, and that's what makes you willing to actually admit powerlessness and the need for help, and that's where the change starts. I wonder if these things--hitting bottom and admitting powerlessness--might be what it takes for a supernatural rescue that's not shallow or fake.

    I thought of this because of what you said, Elgaisma, b/c though I haven't read your story it rather sounds like this is what you're doing with it, and it sounds good to me.

    As far as nygiants' plot issue goes, I agree with Islander.
     

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