Here I Come To Save The Day!

Deus ex machina is Latin for “God from the machine”.  It’s a literary term for when all hope seems lost and KABLAMMO! everything is saved.

That has to be the only paragraph in history with both a Latin phrase and “kablammo” referring to the same thing.  Let’s see how much more awesome this post can get.

A Deus ex machina is a contrived way to let the author keep his characters alive.  Consider, for instance, the eagles from the Lord of the Rings.  Thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit are at the top of the same tree as wolves and goblins prowl the land below and a fire licks up from the trees around.  Well, it looks like Bilbo’s done for this time.  Nope!  The eagles are coming!

Deus ex machina is annoying.  It’s contrived.  We want to see Bilbo suddenly cut the tree loose and slide down the mountain like a roller coaster with no minimum height restrictions.  We want to see Gandalf pull something new out of his hat.  We want to see Bombur eat something, sending the tree crashing down to crush the goblins while simultaneously breaking open the dam that just happened to be nearby, extinguishing the fire.  Because it isn’t Deus ex machina when they use their surroundings– only when someone else saves their bacon without any warning.  We want to see character cleverness, not omnipotence from nowhere.

In Inheritance, the fourth book of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, the world is saved by a Deus ex machina in a big way.  I can’t say because of spoilers, but he should have died just for using that Deus ex machina.

But Deus ex machina isn’t only for keeping characters alive.  In the Hunger Games, Katniss loses hearing in one ear from an explosion in the Games.  After she wakes up in the Capitol again, she finds that her hearing is back.  Deus ex machina?  I think so.  I was really annoyed with that.  She won the Games, but shouldn’t she have some sort of sacrifice to go along with it?  Life being perfect while she just killed everyone in sight isn’t quite enough of a downer for me, it seems.

This goes along with the “yes but/no and” plot twist philosophy, which I’m sure I’ll explain eventually in more depth.  This philosophy basically says that with any question in the story, the answer is either “yes but” or “no and”.  Can they get across this bottomless cliff?  Yes, but there is a monster on the other side; or no, and there’s a monster on this side too.  The odds keep getting worse and worse, which, if done correctly, makes for a better story.

With a Deus ex machina, you’re basically saying, “Yes, and.”  Can we get across this bottomless cliff?  Yes, and there’s an ice cream shop on the other side and we have money!  Yay!  Can we get off this tree before the goblins and wolves get to us?  Yes, and now we’re this much closer to the Lonely Mountain!  Yay!

A short aside: the “yes but/no and” philosophy also goes along with ending a chapter with a plot twist.  You never want to end a chapter with the yes and start the next with a but.  You want to start the chapter with a yes and end it with a but.

Deus ex machina.  A bad idea, even according to Ancient Greek playwrights.  Look it up.

So how do you fix it?  Some say back to the drawing board, but that isn’t necessary.

A Deus ex machina can be solved so simply.  All you have to do is add foreshadowing.

In the Lord of the Rings movies (I’m not sure about in the books, because I always forget to pay attention in those spots), Gandalf whispers to a moth about ten minutes before the eagles show up.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence– Gandalf just likes moths, and enjoys tickling their antennae.  In the three times it happens– twice in the Trilogy and once in the Hobbit– the moth seems to herald the eagles.  Why?  No one knows.  But the inexplicably detailed moth scenes must be important somehow, and the eagles always follow.  We see him talking to a moth, then he jumps onto an eagle’s back.  At that point, we realize, Hey!  That moth was actually worth it!

Foreshadowing works by going backwards.  You barely notice the innocuous precedents, but when something big happens you look back and realize that it worked out since the beginning.  If you took away the foreshadowing, everything would be a Deus ex machina.  Oh, sure, Bilbo just happened to find a Ring that made him invisible so he could sneak past Gollum.  Even silly things like Katniss having a bow and arrow can be a Deus ex machina.  If she hadn’t seen her style weapons in the Cornucopia beforehand, and if she hadn’t figured they would give her something like that, it would have looked like a huge coincidence.  For that matter, if we hadn’t known that she knew the bow from the arrow in the first place, we would have put the book down once she shot her first opponent.  Of course, she’s a perfect shot!  She just got that bow today… didn’t she?

But Deus ex machinas that aren’t are unimportant compared to Deus ex machinas that are.  In order to shoot someone, you must have the gun on the mantelpiece long before.  Often, the foreshadowing is hidden by comedy.  You can have a thief steal the main character’s sword, and the whole book is filled with, “Where did you put my sword?”  “I’m not telling.”  “When I get my sword back, you’ll regret this.”  “Then I’m definitely not telling.”  Then, in the final battle, when the main character has a bloody nose and a monster is dragging him by the ankles into its lair, he suddenly finds, hidden in the upholstery of a beat-up couch, his sword!  “So that’s where my sword went,” he says.  “Eat steel, monster scum!”  You can imagine the rest.

Be careful: solutions to the Deus ex machina become very obvious if overdone.  Foreshadowing is a light seasoning– when something is that important, you want to be subtle about it until it’s time to bash the reader’s over the head with it.  Don’t pull it out too soon.  That makes for predictable plot twists.

Foreshadowing makes a Deus ex machina go KABLAMMO!  There, I used all the relevant terms in one sentence.


114 thoughts on “Here I Come To Save The Day!

  1. That term “deus ex machina” seems to be a description of lazy or compassionate authors who don’t want anything bad to happen to their characters.

    Cough cough cough.

    Er…I don’t think I do this too often, but that’s only because I skip those parts and leave it for the second draft. Darn.

    Sooooo thanks for that, I suppose. I guess that means I’m not actually lazy (just compassionate), because if I was I’d stop reading these posts that make me go fix my writing. Yay!

  2. I looked it up. Ancient Greeks did indeed dislike Deus ex machinas.

    Good post. Actually one of the plot twists in my WIP is a Deus ex machina, and it’s been driving me crazy. It’s way cooler to see the characters’ wits put to the test than to have them wallowing in dirt and suddenly be saved.

    That “Yes but/no and” is rather interesting. I’m trying do something similar in my WIP which I call “FAIL ALL THE MC’S PLANS! MWAHAHAHA!” I’ll have to play around with “Yes but/No and.”

    And that concludes this episode of How What You Said in this Post Applies to my WIP.

    Also, congrats on topping 700 followers.

    1. Isaac Phael’s story is obviously a failure story as well. It didn’t work out too well. I’d be careful with that.

      Thank you. Eventually I’ll shut down the 650 extra accounts I have following my blog, but for now…

      1. I’ll keep that in mind, thanks. My charries will have to succeed eventually, or the murderer will get away, but it won’t be easy.

        650, ay? Does that mean some of the comment threads here are really you arguing with yourself?

      2. Eh, nah, they just follow and never show up. Except for Robyn Hoode. She’s a puppet commenter. Hard to spot, too, because of the occasional typos. (Kidding, of course. No offense to Robyn.)

      3. It really is, Gwily. LIAM! WHERE IN THE UNIVERSE ARE YOU?! How could you stand to miss this any longer?! We’re not going to bite, we promise.

      1. Only if someone was planning on it on the good side. If they sent up a signal hours ago that no one responded to, then it’s fixed. If he just said, “I smelled thy terror in the air and I rode hither at speed,” it won’t work.

  3. Liam.



    You’re missing out on your super special party! Quirk might eat all of the cake if you don’t show up soon. *sad face*

      1. Not bad, but usually the spam comments I receive talk about something about the layout, weight loss, or my color theme, then linking to their website. It’s rather odd.

      2. “Hi, you have a really great blog here, so glad I stopepd by to see. I noticed your ranking a little low on Google, you might want to check out my website I will defintiely tell my friends about you’re blog.”

        That’s a better one.

      3. Here’s an actual spam comment, borrowed from another blog. I found it quite amusing.

        “What a information of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable familiarity regarding unpredicted emotions.

        Review my site”

    1. Yeah, Quirk can be like that.

      Which reminds me, Liam, you’re missing the annoyingness between me and your character. It was perfect. *smirks at Quirk*

      1. Because Quirk is…something to do with Quirk? Errrrrrrrgh.

        WordPress won’t let respond to comments from the dashboard for some reason.

  4. Fun fact: the “deus ex machina” stems from the practice in Greek theatre where, when everything had gone to heck at the end of the play, the actor playing the God (the “deus”) would be lowered on a primitive winch from the top of the stage (the “machina) to solve everyone’s problems and make it all work out okay!

    Of course, this was expected at the time – unfortunately the trend for such events, whether involving gods on strings or no, persist. Brilliant post, Liam!

    Also, nip by Seana’s blog. There’s a very special something waiting for you there 😉

  5. I thought it made sense that Katniss’ ear was fized because, you know, super-amazing Capitol technology and all that. But it was still weird.

      1. Brillant plan, but maybe your plan ahould have been to not do it so that no one would think you did. Instead of doing the unexpected, do the expected, because people expect the unexpected.

      2. The unexpected is an infinity, but the expected can be restricted. To say that people expect the unexpected is to say that they expect anything to happen, which is rarely true. People expect something that isn’t too obvious, but they still pin it down to a few scenarios. For instance, you might expect me to do something unexpected, like balance something on my head when I should be blowing it up– but if I suddenly hired an animal farm and taught you to skydive with a horse, that would be a different matter.

      3. If you convince me to ignore my fear of hights and overcome my dislike of horses and jump out of a plane, unexpected is an inderstatment.

  6. On the note of ‘deus ex machina’, and not Liam’s party, I think you could use a less extreme version of it to show that the main characters aren’t perfect.
    Say, Prim had been studying surgery and fixed Katniss’s ear for her. However, Katniss objects, saying, “I can take care of myself, Prim! I don’t need my little sister’s help to survive. Besides, that was a serious operation- you could have killed me!”
    It could even be a climax to the story. Imagine a completely self-reliant character wanting to save the day all the time. He pulls something out of his magic bag every time a twist for the worse occurs, but near the end, someone else saves him for a change.

    Another thought on deus ex machina. I recently saw a Superman movie that I hated… not because I hate Superman, but because he saved the day behind the viewers’ backs. At one point, we thought he was finally vulnerable and would have to rely on Lois or someone. But it turns out that he had known about the evil plot all along. In the end, Superman saves himself, and all of the civilians. Not one person, big or small, died in that movie.
    Is this a form of deus ex machina?

    P.S. I wasn’t at the party, either.

    1. Well, if we know this character has a magic bag, then it isn’t truly Deus ex machina.

      That wasn’t Deus ex machina. That was just bad suspense, resulting from too perfect a main character.

      1. Okay, well worked about as well as a usage of deus ex machina.
        I would rather err on the side of a lucky character than that of a perfect character.

      2. Can’t argue with that.
        Another character that could pull it off would be a combination of serious, goofy, insane, lucky, and intelligent, like a Luna Lovegood. Only one per book, though.

      3. I like those characters as side characters and comic relief. As main characters, they are despicable. I wrote one for almost a year, and I hated him.

      4. By all means, try it out– after all, why learn from others’ mistakes when you can make them yourself? (Just kidding. I might have done it wrong.)

      5. Kindly see above and you’ll see that I like to defy limits, even vocabularical limits (I just made up the word vocabularical).
        And yes, it is debatable. Contextually it is a word because it is used in common speech. and anyway, new words are created all the time- whole languages, even. That is where English came from. So, even if I did make it up it’s not the first time a legitimate word has come into existence. One could argue that just my typing the syllables, ‘Al-right-y’, makes it a legitimate word.

      6. The ability to type it on a keyboard doesn’t make it a legitimate word. I banged my hands against the keyboard yesterday and produced “lkfda”. Is that a legitimate word? Methinks not. Perhaps it is the definition that makes it legitimate? Okay, I hereby define lkfda to be the act of exploding while whistling the French national anthem. Is lkfda a word now? I don’t think so. I could add it to my computer’s spell check– would the lack of a squiggly red line make it a word? No. There is a more to a word than the ability to type/pronounce it, define it, and slip it past spell check.

      7. Another requirement for a word is that it be able to be spoken. I can’t say lkfda because it is 80% consonants. I think you are right except when you said that simply giving a series of letters meaning doesn’t make it a word.
        And you’re word must fit into a given language’s syntax. Take the elvish language in LOtR. Does it contain words? According to me, yes. According to you, no.
        Furthermore, my word, “alrighty”, has a meaning that others understand, whereas your word, “lkfda”, only conveys meaning to you. Well, now it conveys meaning to me, so I guess it is a real word. Shared meaning.

      8. Syn-tax (sin-tacks)
        (n) 1. The commonly accepted sentence structure of a given language.
        2. The rules that regulate a grammatical structure.

        [Often and incorrectly used interchangeably with the word ‘grammar’. While grammar includes syntax, it encompasses more than just sentence structure.]

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