Too often, writers/storytellers get so caught up in writing a story that 1) they forget to plan the ending and 2) once they get to the end, they don’t know what to do. They build up so much drama and tragedy that the only way to really resolve it is to just flick the magic wand and say: everything is good! Even if they have to pull it out of the air.
The problem is, unless the reader has it in mind to expect a certain solution, or at least some alternative of it, it’s gonna feel like a cheap shot. Many consider it poor storytelling, some get away with it. Avatar is probably one of the biggest flaunts of deus ex machina (a show I love, by the way). Their first finale was so spectacular, however, that many overlooked it. The second time (Legend of Korra), it really showed. Obviously, you can get away with it, but it only takes a little bit of extra planning and depth to avoid.
So what leads up to a deus ex machina (DEM) and how do you spot it?
- A huge buildup of drama and conflict that doesn’t seem to have a solution.
- An unstoppable villain.
- Supernatural or catastrophic powers. They don’t have to be otherworldly, they can also be natural disasters or storms, for instance. Or maybe deathly diseases, wars, etc. These usually occur in the grand finale settings.
A quick and painless solution that:
1) Was not mentioned elsewhere in the story before.
2) Does not tie in to any of the elements of the story and/or contradicts previously stated concepts.
3) Does not have any consequence.
Funny thing is, the story doesn’t have to have a “god-like” force for a deus ex machina to occur. It could be something as simple as lightning striking down the villain just when he’s about to take down the hero. Or them being pushed by the wind overboard a ship. While this can work if it ties into the character’s recklessness for dominion and their lust for power becomes their foolish end, it can also feel like the author took the easy way out. If the end is brought upon by the character him/herself, it should be clearly stated and built up as such, rather than simply striking them down and saying: oops, you’re dead.
The best example of where a DEM was avoided, to me, would be Lord of the Rings. We knew Frodo was on his way to destroy the ring, we knew he would back out because the power was taking over, and it was Gollum’s possessiveness over it that became his end. While we may or may not have seen that coming, it was a clean ending that tied up the elements of the plot without taking the easy way out. For instance, the ring falling in some crevice by pure accident and getting destroyed. Oh, hey, problem solved! Is it possible? Yes. Just not very satisfying.
-The Story Addict
How many deus ex machinas do you know?
As a special indie feature, here’s a book that does well to avoid a deus ex machina. Read on!
A psychiatrist with a secret and another identity. A betrayed US Marine on a quest for vengeance. Two characters collide when sequential events started in two cities. Two characters, two sets of abilities, and one escapade.