Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device That Has Sucked Since 400 B.C.
First, an overview:
What is Deus Ex Machina?
Literally, that phrase is Latin for: “A god from the machine.” Roughly translated, it means: “You wrote a shitty ending.” Actually, if you change it to deuce ex machina, as in “drop a deuce” or “go number two,” then it really does translate to “turd machine.” Either way, it is not a good sign.
Not all shitty endings are deus ex. The trademark of a dues ex ending is the combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) some improbable, intervening force. If you take one of those elements away, it isn’t deus ex. It may still be a bad ending, but it won’t be the mother of all bad endings, which is what deus ex almost always is.
Let’s take the “cavalry rides to the rescue” ending as an example. Is that always deus ex? Certainly not. If you are writing about the Battle of Vienna, a massive cavalry charge turning the tide is a huge part of the story. But (a) it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming from the outset. Although (b) it did solve the hero’s problems, (c) it was not improbable at all, nor was the cavalry an outside force intervening in things. That charge was part of the “hero’s” plan from the outset.
Now let’s say you are writing a contemporary story about a woman on the run from the mob. She’s alone in the park and notices five guys in trench coats closing in on her from all sides. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. But then:
Deus ex cavalry charge. Notice the cars in the parking lot.
Yea, that’s a deus ex. You can tell, because it sucks.
Western Civilization as it Relates to Deus Ex
The term itself originated around 19 B.C.E. Yes, B.C. As in, Before Christ, which, regardless of your belief in the divinity of Christ, was a long, long, long fucking time ago. It comes to us courtesy of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, whom the English speaking world usually calls Horace. He coined the term in Ars Poetica, which was basically a style guide for Roman poets, where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots “unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen.”
Like most things scholarly and Roman around that time, it was not a Roman idea. Horace was parroting Aristotle’s 335 B.C.E. bitchfest about Deus Ex, entitled Poetics. Translated, Aristotle said, “It is obvious that the solutions of plots, too, should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” The contrivances he hated so much in ancient Greek plays were – you guessed it – gods being lowered or raised onto the stage by way of some kind of machine. Usually it was a crane, sometimes a trap door.
Either way, you have your Greek tragedy going along just fine, we’ve been through Act II, the characters are in a hopeless position, all seems lost, then *POOF*
DoucheyZeus is here to save the day.
Zeus shows up and just fixes everything. And around 400 B.C., most people agreed that ending kinda sucked.
For a little perspective, the first novel printed in the English Language is believed to be William Caxton’s 1483 translation of The Book of the Knight of the Tower. So people giving advice about how to write had been saying deus ex sucks for almost two thousand years before the first book was ever printed in the English language. It’s been well over five hundred years since that book was printed, and nothing much has changed.
Deus only knows how many not famous books are not famous because they suffered from this malady. Some famous novels do, too. The important thing to note is that those books’ fame is usually attributed to their other, more worthy aspects or the prior fame of the author. Criticisms usually point to those other aspects and note that the books are successful despite – and never because of – the crappy ending.
For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are surrounded by an army of about two million evil minions inside a dark overlord’s volcano lair. Oh, yea, then the volcano starts to erupt. Pretty impossible situation, right? Apparently, because Tolkien couldn’t even think of a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Yea, so, um, then giant eagles show up and fly them to safety. The end. Bad enough to undo the prior thousands of pages of epic Middle Earth storytelling? No. But in my entire life I have not heard one person say, “I love the part where the eagles just show up from out of nowhere and save them.” He also gets a bit of a pass because the real story conflict was already over. The ring was gone, Golem met his fate, the boys had accomplished their mission – the story was done. They just happened to end said story and mission in the middle of an evil overlord’s erupting volcano lair and surrounded by an evil army. Tolkien was just cheating to make the characters survive, not to complete the saga of the ring itself.
Why is Deus Ex so Bad?
I like to think of this in terms of investing. When readers enjoy a story, they are invested in the characters and the plot. Those things matter to them. The better job we do writing, the more invested they are. By the time we get to Act III, they have invested time, they are invested in the characters and the story, and they expect that investment to pay off.
Then a deus exey writer says “Forget all that, here’s something that has nothing to do with any of it. Story’s over, the end.”
Every moment spent investing in the story and the characters was wasted. Three hundred pages of learning about the situation and wondering how the characters could possibly get out of it were answered with: “They can’t, but they live happily ever after, anyway. The end.” Basically, it feels like the author is saying “Fuck you, it’s your fault you read the first 300 pages, because all that matters is the last one.”
More truthfully, though, a deus ex is the author’s admission that he painted himself into a corner. H.G. Wells told a great story in War of the Worlds, right up to the end. I’m sorry, but more advanced civilizations wiping out native populations are generally the ones with the nastiest bugs, not incapable of dealing with them. Stephen King, no stranger to writing himself into a corner, uses it in a very in-your-face way in the Dark Tower series, intervening as author/god and sending a note into his fictional world that actually says, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” Kurt Vonnegut did something similar in Breakfast of Champions.
Is Deus Ex Always teh Suk?
If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my distaste for commentary about writing that uses “always” or “never.” Because my only “always” is that such commentary or advice is never true.
Deus ex has been used for comedic effect brilliantly. Monte Python uses it with abandon – A UFO showing up to rescue Brian after he fell off a cliff, characters being terrorized by an animated monster being saved when the animator keels over from a heart attack at his desk, a modern police raid ending the medieval battle – it’s one of their favorite devices. And they’re not the only ones:
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (The writers hung a lampshade to protest the producers’ demand for a happy ending)
Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive is another wink at this device. The drive got its name from the fact that he’d painted himself into a corner, Ford and Arthur are floating in space without space suits and it was ridiculously improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time. Voila, the Infinite Improbability Drive is born.
In my opinion, William Golding’s ending to Lord of the Flies may be an acceptable use. The situation is hopeless, the protagonist is facing certain death, and then a naval officer shows up and stops the story in its tracks. It’s unquestionably a deus ex — even Golding called the ending a “gimmick.” But allowing the hero to prevail through some reasonable course of events would completely undermine the point Golding was trying to make. Plus, like Tolkien’s example, the deus ex was used there as a device for returning the characters to the normal world after the core story had completed. It was not offered up as a resolution of the core story.
Having said that, outside comedic uses or the need to put a stop to the slaughter of innocent children, deus ex is usually pretty bad. Like cholera is usually unpleasant and Fran Drescher’s laugh is slightly annoying. It is a symptom in Act III that you have severe problems with Acts I and II, and can unravel everything you’ve done in those acts with a single paragraph.
Outside parody, nobody sets out to write a deus ex ending. It’s a last, worst option. And there’s usually a better solution. If you’ve painted yourself into a corner and find yourself staring DoucheyZeus in the eye, you still have another option. Wait for the paint to dry, go borrow a gun from Anton Chekhov, and shoot the motherfucker in the face.
Which might give you a hint what my next topic will be.