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Deus Ex Machina

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Tue Mar 22, 2016 6:21 pm
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Vervain says...

When I started writing, I had a bit of a bad habit. I'd write my characters into corners, which is probably one of the most fun parts of messing around with scenarios. The problem came when I could never figure out how to get them out of that corner intact and happy.

So I would magic up some excuse for them to get out of it—under stress, the main character develops the ability to talk to birds, or they discover that their significant family heirloom is actually a magical artifact that will get them out of all their troubles. No problem, right? Character got into a scrape, character got out of a scrape, the story continues as normal.

The issue is, it doesn't really work that way. My friends and readers were unsatisfied with the results, and they called me out on not being realistic with my scenarios and characters. Some of the feedback I heard mentioned something called deus ex machina, so I took a short break from writing and went on a researching spree, because I had some questions that I wanted answered. I figured I should start with...

What is deus ex machina?

The term is used fairly often in the modern literary field. Quite literally, it means "god from the machine," and it comes from a technique used in classical Greek plays where they would bring the actors playing the gods onstage via machine. They would be lowered using a crane or raised through a trapdoor, seemingly appearing out of the heavens or the underworld to attend to the problems presented in the play.

But that's not exactly what it is today. When we talk about deus ex machina as a literary device, we're talking about how an outside force—not necessarily godly—comes in out of the blue to solve the conflicts that have arisen. Like every device, it's nothing more than a tool at the author's disposal, but it should be used with great care.

For example, let's say we're writing a fantasy novel. Our main character, Lucy, picks up an amulet in Chapter 3 of the novel. Nothing is said about this amulet except for a short description as a pretty trinket. The story continues, and when Chapter 23 rolls around and Lucy and her friends are facing off against the dragon king, things look hopeless. But never fear: It just so happens that the amulet is the only thing with the power to defeat the dragon king!

You might know this phenomenon by a different name: plot convenience. It's where an author takes a plot device that has not been established and uses it to solve the characters' problems, often without a price or consequence. By force of the author, the plot bends to give the main characters the most optimal outcome to whatever situation they've landed in.

Keep in mind, though, deus ex machina is not always a bad thing! Used sparingly and with thought to the consequences for the characters and plot, it can be an effective way to move the story along.

For another example, let's say we have a sci-fi novel in the works. Our main character, Brad, is cornered by a bunch of aliens from the planet Tragon, and it looks like he's about to bite the dust—only to find out that he can control electricity, which is a surefire way to get water-based Tragonians off your tail. He beats them, then spends time developing his character over suddenly being able to control electricity, learning the limits and cost of his power, and making moral decisions about his new ability.

You might notice there's a big difference between the two examples I gave you: While Lucy has the solution handed to her and suffers no consequences as a result, Brad has to spend time on his new ability during his character arc, even though it came out of nowhere and solved his Tragonian problem without a hitch.

Now, having learned all of this when I did my research, I had another question that was answered by carefully observing the behavior of the wild plot convenience...

How does deus ex machina affect my story as a plot device?

I'm pretty sure we all know that, in its most basic form, a plot is based on conflict of some kind. Whether that conflict is contained within or exists outside of a certain setting, time period, or character, it's part of the overall plot arc of the novel, because conflict enacts change.

So what happens when you use deus ex machina to solve conflict? Then your characters, setting, and story aren't affected by the change that would have been forced on them through the conflict, whether that's a permanent consequence (like death or emotional growth) or a temporary one (like a wound or a rift between friends). Consequences have continuous effects on the story and can help create new levels of understanding between the audience and the world you've created.

By taking away the consequences of conflict, you take away the consequences of action, and the end result is that your plot ends up feeling cheaper because there's no weight behind the actions of your main and supporting cast.

Using deus ex machina to solve your characters' problems rids them of the opportunity to develop like a real person does. Believe it or not, every fight you've been in, every break-up and every make-up, has had some sort of effect on shaping the person you are today. Every time you face a difficult decision in life, you come out the other side a different person from before you made that decision.

When you don't let your characters face difficult decisions with no right answer or get in fights they won't win, you're stifling their growth as characters. More often than not, that will also lead to your plot becoming stagnant or predictable: If you never let your main character lose, then where's the tension as they're fighting, the relief and joy when they win? Where are the stakes?

Keeping our examples from before in mind, Lucy's plot is cheapened by the use of the dragon-killing amulet as a throwaway plot point. She wins for no reason, and she doesn't change because of her encounter with the dragon king, because she wasn't at risk of losing. On the other hand, Brad changes as a result of being able to control electricity, because it becomes a part of his character that wasn't there before, and he has to confront that, which creates conflict.

Well, Brad and Lucy aside, I had another question. Now that I knew how this device affected my plot, I needed to know...

How does deus ex machina affect my audience and their suspension of disbelief?

To start with, suspension of disbelief is pretty important in fiction writing. It's the little thing that happens where you sit down to enjoy a fictional novel and, while you know that all of that didn't or couldn't happen in the world you live in, you push that doubt aside for the sake of enjoying the story. For example, you'll read an urban fantasy novel, but you won't actually expect a fossilized dinosaur to go rampaging through the streets of Chicago (or think it's possible in this day and age).

The thing about suspension of disbelief is that it largely relies on the audience getting engrossed in the story. An audience who is involved in the plot and characters is more likely to excuse some oddities that happen as a result of that story's world or other elements.

When using deus ex machina, however, the author makes the readers aware that they're just reading a story that's made up of words on paper—it becomes an oddity that they can't excuse. And when readers shrug off their willing suspension of disbelief, they're more likely to see weak or underdeveloped points in the story, especially as a result of the deus ex machina plot device. They're also likely to get impatient if the characters don't use or develop the vehicle you've chosen for the deus ex machina (like Lucy's amulet or Brad's powers) and simply leave it without explanation or buildup.

As a writer, one of your end goals is to make readers believe your story is realistic, or that it could actually happen in the given setting. You already know that some deus ex machina can be executed well, but when it's not, that end goal can be affected in some seriously negative ways.

Looking at our examples, which do you think the audience will get more impatient with: Brad or Lucy?

Brad discovers his powers when he's in a tight spot, and they don't have any context when they appear, which is a hallmark of deus ex machina—but as his storyline continues, it's still possible to explain the phenomenon. In addition, because his powers are built into his character and develop alongside him as a person, the audience is more likely to forgive them and accept them as a part of the plot.

Meanwhile, Lucy has had this dragon-killing amulet on her the whole time, but because seemingly no one recognized it for what it was, she ambled along getting scared out of her wits by the prospects of facing the dragon king. As she and her friends gear up to face this monster with the knowledge that some of them may not get out alive, they're suddenly saved by something that has, for all intents and purposes, come from the wide blue yonder without mention or foreshadowing.

I think we can come to the same conclusion: The audience has little to no reason to believe Lucy's storyline as realistic, while they do have reason to believe Brad's. This is because with Brad, they get a possible explanation and the powers become relevant after they show up; with Lucy, the audience has little to no reason to trust in her storyline when the key plot device wasn't mentioned after it appeared at the beginning of the novel.

You can guess that by this point in my education, I was pretty gung-ho about cutting all of this god-from-the-machine stuff out of my writing. Sure, it's okay sometimes, but definitely not all the time—what better way to make sure it works than not to include any at all? So I sat down and I asked myself...

How can I avoid using deus ex machina?

Your characters may not always be able to handle things in their current state. They may need something to help them along, and you're going to want to include it—the important thing is developing your plot devices and giving them a leg to stand on in the world, especially if they're meant to help your characters.

I got this bit of useful advice from a friend: Using coincidence to get your characters into trouble is fun; using it to get them out is cheating. Give them real consequences for the actions they take and the situations they're in. Put your characters in real jeopardy, and make the results stick to them like glue. If your character breaks a bone or gets a bad scratch, show them healing, or show the price of using medicine or healing magic.

An important part of writing is understanding that you can't give your characters happy endings all the time. They're going to be hurt sometimes, and they're going to be sad sometimes, and there are going to be situations they have to face that they can't get out of easily.

It's tempting to hand Lucy that dragon-killing amulet in Chapter 3, but if you do, make sure to build it up throughout the story as a plot device and give it weaknesses, so it's not just a foolproof solution. Does it only apply to certain types of dragons? Can it not kill the dragon king? Does it cost something every time she uses it, and cost more for more powerful dragons? Give Lucy actual conflict surrounding the amulet, and it will become part of her plotline and characterization.

At the same time, it's tempting to give Brad those electricity powers, but he has to face consequences as a result of having them. If we see him in trouble with the Tragonians in Chapter 1, but Chapters 2 through 5 are him traipsing around the interstellar satellite and shocking people with handshakes, that's not going to build the story very well. It'll get easy to see Brad's sudden development of those powers as a cheap addition that doesn't have weight in his story arc.

Writing comes down to change. We don't read stories to see people and places staying the same, so how do your characters change as a result of all the conflicts, large and small, that they face? That's an important step in developing your plot points beyond being victims of deus ex machina.

When I finished up learning all of this, I just stepped back and went wow. That's a lot of stuff I didn't know before. I picked myself up and started writing again, while thinking about the development of my plot and how to incorporate deus ex machina without weakening my story as a whole. The way I thought about my conflict and consequences changed, and whether I knew it or not, I grew a little as a writer through seeking out this information.

Hopefully, now you have, too.
stay off the faerie paths

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Tue Mar 22, 2016 11:14 pm
Wolfi says...

Great article! ^^
John 14:27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled
and do not be afraid.

Powerful men have a way of avoiding consequences.
— Dr. Harrison Wells, The Flash