The other day I happened to catch an episode of the TV show Monday Mornings in rerun, and one of the characters mentioned deus ex machina. What caught my attention was how he pronounced it – DAY-oos eks MAH-kee-nah. I realized, then, that I didn’t recall ever having heard that phrase spoken out loud before and that all of this time, I’ve been mentally pronouncing it incorrectly. My high school and college French had me thinking it as dus oh mah-SHEEN-a. I felt really stupid at my mistake but also very educated because now I can jauntily throw that phrase about with the correct Latin pronunciation. Bonus: spelling it is now a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, knowing how to say it doesn’t make me like it any better. For those unfamiliar with the expression, deus ex machina is Latin meaning “god from the machine”. I personally think it’s just a fancy way of saying “cop out.”
Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy and in-depth discussion of this writing device, but to sum up, it’s when a writer introduces some new or unexpected element to solve a problem for which he or she sees no other solution. He’s painted himself into a storytelling corner, put his hero in a dire situation for which there seems no escape, and to end things on a happy note, he introduces a new magical power or a heretofore unknown character or, heck, the entire U.S. Marine Corps (in a historical set in 1693!) to rescue the guy from certain death. If you aren’t afraid to venture into this guaranteed time-suck of a site, check out TV Tropes for a long list of great examples.
Fairytales, some of the most enduring and ancient stories out there, commonly employ the deus ex machina to create a happy ending. Prince Charming arrives out of nowhere to kiss Snow White and bring her back from death. His literary cousin does the same to wake Sleeping Beauty. The woodsman happens upon Grandma’s cottage just in time to rescue Red Riding Hood from the jaws of the wolf. It seems that spontaneous solutions were the most common way to end these tales on an upbeat note.
TV shows and movies are littered with deus ex machina, sometimes used to reset a story when things have gone too far off the rails. The most famous example might be Bobby Ewing’s appearance in a shower after he’d been dead for over a year on Dallas, the whole situation explained away as a bad dream. Jane Granville noted that in the movie Dodgeball, the writers make fun of the trope by pulling a completely out-of-left-field plot twist actually labeled “deux ex machina”.
Blythe pointed out that even literary classics aren’t immune to the easy fix. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities allowed a character to escape execution by offering up a noble soul who looked exactly like him (what are the chances?) to die in his place. When wandering the lonely English countryside heartbroken, lost, sick and confused, Jane Eyre was conveniently rescued by none other than her long lost cousins. Some discussion could be had arguing that the writers of these times truly did believe that God or the gods (deus) had a hand in a character’s fate, thus such solutions weren’t necessarily to be considered unexpected or far-fetched.
When I asked my fellow reviewers if they had some examples of modern day romances that employ deus ex machina, it seems we’ve all experienced it in some form or another.
Generally, deus ex machina in romance novels with more traditional happy endings often tend to come in the form of the death of an extraneous love interest. Hero or heroine already married when he/she meets the true love of his/her life? A sudden death is most likely in store for the hapless spouse. The excellent romance-novel-come-to-TV Downton Abbey conjured the deadly Spanish Influenza to dispatch the inconvenient Lavinia so that fan favorites Matthew and Mary could be together guilt-free. I think this over-used form of deus ex machina stems from the fact that writers in this genre tend to want to avoid any suggestion that their heroes might be guilty of adultery, and thus any loose ends must be firmly and irrevocably tied off – a sure thing with death as the ultimate solution.
The use of deus ex machina doesn’t have to be that dramatic, of course. Inheritances come at just the right moment to solve money woes. Family members thought dead turn out to be alive. Unknown relationships create alliances that allow deadly wars to be averted. No true crisis can’t be averted by some happy coincidence that puts just what the characters need within easy reach.
One example of possible deus ex machina seemed to divide the AAR team – that of the solution Stephenie Meyer employed to save broken-hearted Jacob Black from a life of pining after Bella Swan when she chose the Edward side of their famous love triangle. Some of us consider Jacob’s imprinting on Bella and Edward’s baby daughter, Renesmee, to be deus ex machina in grotesque form. In effect, all of this time Jacob had been in love not so much with Bella but with her eggs. Not only did this explanation negate a great portion of the previous books and severely weaken the impact of the love triangle, it caused many readers to squirm in discomfort with the idea of a practically grown man “falling in love” with an infant, even if he presumably would wait until she came of age to act on his feelings towards her. The ewww factor alone is fodder for an entire series of blog posts.
However, others thought that Meyer had always intended for Jacob to imprint on Renesmee, and thus his love for Bella was never more than a temporary transference. I suppose your level of cynicism might dictate your interpretation, suffice it to say that many found the situation to be less than organic.
A form of deus ex machina that Heather Stanton brought up as especially problematic is that of a built-in story god with the power to solve problems as needed. She mentioned the Scribe Virgin of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood in particular because more than one of the titles in this series ends with the Scribe Virgin either undoing a problem completely or introducing new world-building aspects to solve the problem. Those who were tempted to throw their books at the wall when Doc Jane became a ghost will understand the level of frustration this can cause. Indeed, constantly changing and adding world-building elements in order to solve problems is a flaw that, if found in paranormals or urban fantasies, will cause me to not finish the book or give it a low grade if I’m forced to finish it.
In the end, it seems readers have an aversion to stories in which heroes and/or heroines don’t have to earn their way out of their problems. If the natural consequences of a person’s actions or unfortunate twists of fate can simply be erased at the last minute by the wave of a writer’s magic wand, any investment we’ve put into the character’s plight and the outcome of the story’s conflict feels wasted. It’s as if we’ve been cheated out of the fantastic ending we’ve been toiling for right alongside our heroes.
How do you feel about deus ex machina as a way for a writer to solve an unsolvable problem? Is it ever acceptable? Are there any examples you’ve found that ruined an otherwise decent story?
I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.