1. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    When is deus ex machina okay?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Justin Rocket 2, Aug 25, 2015.

    One of the most fundamental rules of writing is to avoid Deus ex Machina. However, there are certain stories which have been able to use it and be great. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example of that. What are your feelings as to when it can be used well?
     
  2. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    Don't ask me if anything published by none less than James Patterson has it, but if the subtext has foreshadowed it adequately and the entire piece has fantastic elements, I wouldn't feel ripped off, I don't think.
     
  3. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well. I haven't seen Indiana Jones but let me check definitions real quick.

    Deus ex Machina or gods machine is when it feels like god himself/herself reaches into the story and just fixes some inconvenience. Which normally feels bad because it feels as if the writer wrote themselves into a corner and had no idea how to get out. Thus god solved the issue.


    If that is what we are defining as Deus ex Machina. I would say it not really ever okay. The thing is there are a few issues to rate it.

    One not everyone reacts the same way. A cop getting in trouble for shooting a man during an arrest may feel perfectly natural to you or me. It may feel like the god machine pushing the cop into trouble for a cop. Which is a fair opinion. If the story is good and the god machine's actions feels small in the scheme of things. It may go unnoticed. Yet I still think that is a problem, just a small problem. Like waking up to find you car as been scratched. It is a problem but not one I would personally care enough to fix.

    In the Indiana Movie. The real issue to me is this.
    Was Indiana good because of the god machine or
    Was it good in spite of the points it lost for the god machine?
     
  4. Jaro
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    Jaro Active Member

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    As @BrianIff mentioned, I think foreshadowing is incredibly important. Which, if it is completely planned out and executed correctly, I guess it really wouldn't be deus ex machina anymore. But if you write it out as in the movie 'Contact', where there is no foreshadowing, no clues, nothing, and then BAM! problem fixed? I think that is when the issues arise.
     
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm with @GuardianWynn: it's never okay. I haven't seen (and read?) Raiders of the Lost Ark so I can't comment on that, but I have never seen it done well. Why would you miss an opportunity to show your character doing something that gets a result, and waste it on having fate hand them a result?
     
  6. Lyrical
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    Lyrical Frumious Bandersnatch

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    My husband and I always joke that the one character that could be taken out of the movie and the plot wouldn't change at all is Indiana himself. Don't get me wrong, we both LOVE the movies and have mad respect for them all, but the story is a bit comical when you lay it out.
    I think that kind of includes the face-melting convenience at the end.

    As far as Deus ex Machina goes, I think it's probably difficult to pull off in such a way that your readers wont roll their eyes at it. I agree with the others that it must be properly foreshadowed, and perhaps could be poked fun at in some way by the characters themselves. "Wow, what would we have done if that hadn't worked out?" But I guess if I'm being completely, completely honest, I as a reader never fully buy it. So I'm not sure there is a way to 100% make it work.
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    You can't really foreshadow Deus ex Machina endings. Deus ex machina is when something turns up out of the blue to save the day. In other words, the resolution of the main story problem is WAY too easy and does not stem from how the story has been developing. Some outside agent swoops in to save the day.

    Webster's defines it this way: Full Definition of DEUS EX MACHINA. 1. : a god introduced by means of a crane in ancient Greek and Roman drama to decide the final outcome. : a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.

    If you foreshadow it, you're building towards it, and it doesn't come out of the blue. It might turn out to not be very believable, but that's not really what is meant by Deus Ex Machina. Deus Ex Machina refers to an ending being too 'convenient.'

    I don't actually think Indiana Jones ended with Deus Ex Machina at all. The Ark of the Covenant is a religious relic ...and I think the entire audience assumed from the buildup that something really intense would come out of that box once it was opened. I think everybody kind of 'knew' as the story developed, that there was going to be some major catharsis at the ending. Nazis were portrayed as 'evil' and presumably the Christian/Judaean God would be set against them in a supernatural battle—so karma was indeed served by that ending. I don't study religion, so I don't know what, if anything, the Ark is supposed to contain. But I thought the ending was very satisfying indeed. Not believable, because I am not religious, but a satisfying story. I don't think Spielberg pulled that ending out of the hat because he couldn't think of any other. I think he was building towards it all along.
     
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2015
  8. Jaro
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    Jaro Active Member

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    That's basically what I was saying. If you come up with a deus ex machina, then go back and add foreshadowing and such, then it isn't deus ex machina anymore, and problem solved.
     
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  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In Raiders, the "god" is absolutely literal. Deus ex machina is usually metaphorical , so I feel that Raiders isn't an example.
     
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  10. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    In the original Deus ex Machina, the god was ''literal."
     
  11. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    Aren't a lot of mystery novels DEM, in the sense that you could pepper details along the way to make a surprise work?
     
  12. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I believe so. The person playing the god would literally be lowered down to the stage where he would do whatever to make the bad guys go away. In the more modern sense, it's when something is suddenly revealed to the reader/characters that makes the day winnable for the good guys.

    In Raiders, however, the savvy viewers kind of already knew what was coming. I mean, would God really use his Divine powers to help a group hell bent on destroying his people? Hell no. The moment the Nazis laid their hands on the Ark, it was only a matter of time before God himself laid the smackdown. And considering the Ark was said to have had mystical powers, it would've been a letdown on a big scale if the Ark were open and they were all, “Mein Gott! All there is are two slabs of stones!!”
     
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  13. Jaro
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    Jaro Active Member

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    Well if you leave clues then I wouldn't think so. Think of DEM as in the movie 'Contact'. A time/space machine gets built. It's litterally the only one in existence. Then it gets blown up. Then some random rich guy comes in 'hey by the way, I happened to build another one of these machines exactly like yours, and it's just right over here". No clues, nothing throughout the entire movie, he just shows up when the first one is destroyed, and BAM! Saves the day outa nowhere.
     
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  14. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Exactly. It's when it comes out of nowhere.

    Say your characters are in a tight spot. The bad guys look seconds away from victory, all is lost. DEM is when victory is hand-delivered to them by a force unknown to them and the readers. If the characters/readers know that help is coming, they just have to hold on a bit longer, then it's not a DEM.
     
  15. BrianIff
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    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

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    That sounds like a cheap solution and probably would be DEM proper, but so much CSI and mysteries are just slightly watered-down DEM
     
  16. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    In the case, Deus ex Machina is acceptable if you take its literal meaning and then sufficiently foreshadow the god.
    Or go one step further and write a story from the point of view of a god who lives in a machine.
     
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  17. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Oh, don't even get me started on the bad mysteries where the detective figures out the killer as if through magic rather than evidence.
     
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  18. Aaron DC
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    Aaron DC Contributing Member

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    Not sure about savvy but it's entirely scriptural that the ark housed the presence of god and was kept in the Holy of Holies so that inadvertent viewing did not occur. Holy of Holies was the inner sanctum within the temple, hid behind at least 2 layers of thick curtains. The only person worthy of viewing it was special priest #1 and only after much purification, etc.

    They tied ropes to priests entering (HoH) in case god smote them, so they could be dragged back out again.

    It was not face-melting convenience, it was simply looking on the face of god -- hence the "keep your eyes closed". Straight out of the bible.

    It may have been foreshadowed and appear DEM, but anyone who has read the OT knew exactly what (death) was coming, the only surprise was the how. Not DEM at all IMO, IYKWIM.
     
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  19. Aaron DC
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    Aaron DC Contributing Member

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    As for OP: it happens all the time in the movies. I watch the Cinema sins channel (Everything wrong with) on youtube to get a feel for the things I should consider avoiding and DEM turns up a lot.

    I think Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy has them, but it fits entirely with the concept of the improbability drive.

    I do not know of any other examples off the top of my head, and would not seek to use one myself.
     
  20. bdw8
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    Raiders of the Lost Ark is a bit of an exception because according to the writer, Lawrence Kasdan, the movies is about Indiana Jones' journey from skeptic to believer. The story is religious, albeit subtle. The story focuses on two main characters: Indy and Belloq, two very similar characters whose biggest difference is the company they keep.

    At every turn the Nazis behave irreverently, but their power grows. Belloq knows they're evil. He's displeased with their actions. But he stays anyways, because the Nazis are going to win, so why fight them?

    Indy, on the other hand, faces increasingly difficult odds, but stays the course. Belloq even tries to recruit Indy, but Indy resists.
    When faced with certain defeat, Indy simply barters for Marion's life and lets the Nazis have the ark. Still, he loses, and both he and Marion are taken prisoner.

    This is something we all identify with: trying to do what's right, at times it feeling like we're the only one, and seeing those with no scruples gaining the upper hand.

    That's when God steps in, kills the Nazis, and saves Indy and Marion. It's emotionally satisfying to finally see justice prevail, even if it is in the form of deus ex machina.

    Moreover, the ending has been foreshadowed throughout the film. The ark is repeatedly said to hold the power of God, but God doesn't take sides; He doesn't lend His power to whomever holds the ark; rather, when the ark is opened, the power of God kills the evil and saves the righteous.

    Still, the movie's biggest criticism is its ending, so I think one must be very careful when ending a story in this manner.
     
  21. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    I think it is a lazy excuse for lazy writing. Even if it sounds good, it would still be unbelievable. If you want to use it, foreshadow it before using it. Making it happen as a surprise will anger your readers and make them think it is a cheap shot for your character to get out of a situation. Make it believable depending on which setting you are using.
     
  22. Aaron DC
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    Aaron DC Contributing Member

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    According to the film and the bible, if Indy or Marion had have looked at "God", they would have died as well. Saying God saved them seems to be forgetting the lines spoken in the movie and the story's basis (ie the Bible).

    [as the Nazis are opening the Ark]
    Indiana: Marion, don't look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don't look at it, no matter what happens!

    Straight out of Exodus 33:20: "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!"
     
  23. bdw8
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    We may just be arguing semantics. Assuming Indy was biblically versed, closing his eyes would be out of reverence. That said, it does seem a bit out of character: first, Indy dismisses the power of the ark as a bunch of "superstitious hocus pocus" that he doesn't believe in; then, he dismisses the Imam's warnings about the dangers of the ark; finally, he steals the ark -- according to the Tanakh, as a non-Levite he shouldn't have even gone near the ark. (1 Chronicles 15:2)

    But, strictly sticking to what's in the movie -- as most people wouldn't know the Jewish laws going into the film -- that Indy knows to avoid looking at the ark seems to come out of nowhere and at the most convenient time with little-to-no set up or foreshadowing. There was actually a deleted scene where the Imam translating the headpiece warns Indy not to look at it. This scene was deleted because it made the ending a bit more ambiguous and (potentially) symbolic. Maybe Indy survived because he knew just a little bit more about the Bible than did Belloq or the Nazis... Or, maybe he survived because God read his heart. The final cut isn't real clear on this matter, and I think that's intentional.
     
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  24. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Then why did he close his eyes? And specifically tell Marion to close her eyes as well? The other movies make it clear the Indy has more than a little biblical knowledge. I think you're searching for ambiguity where there is none.
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I do like the way your mind works! :bigsmile:
     
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