Do You Know the Definition of a Deus Ex Machina?


Today, we’re finishing off our series about writing literary climax. But to do so, we’re going to take a brief trek back to dialogue, a topic we covered last month.

On May 3, Innovative Editing discussed “Writing Dialogue for Villains Without Embarrassing Anyone in the Process.” It's point was to take cheesy character speeches to task by referencing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.

As explained in the article:

The whole show is purposely designed to be over-the-top, with groan-inducing puns, impossible heroic feats and mustache-twirling villains who literally stand over the females they’ve captured and tied to railroad tracks, chortling with glee as the train barrels down before the hero swoops in to save the girl and the day.

At its most delightful basic, Rocky and Bullwinkle pokes fun of the unrealistic nature of so much of its fellow fiction out there… which, it must be stated, hasn’t changed all that much since the 20th century.

This much is evidenced by the continuing use of deus ex machinas when writing critical climatic moments.

You might not recognize the term, “deus ex machina.” But you doubtlessly know what it is.

It’s when a storyteller introduces an entirely new and ridiculous element to save a character from certain ruin. From an insider’s perspective (i.e., within the author’s desperate mind), it might seem like it works.

But most outsiders are going to be less than impressed with the display at hand. With good reason.

A deus ex machina is usually a sign of an uncultivated plot.

More than likely, your creative writing goal is to get your protagonist out of the climactic moment both alive and victorious. That’s a noble goal. What isn’t so admirable is when you jump out of the already established boundaries of your setting in order to rescue said character at all costs.

Make your climax’s conclusion make sense with everything that’s already happened and everything that’s still to come. If you don’t, your readers might find themselves laughing at what you wrote instead of being on the edge of their seats.

If you’re writing a parody along the lines of Rocky and Bullwinkle, that laughter might be exactly as intended.

But otherwise, just don’t go there.

So how do you know if you’re using a deus ex machina while writing your story's climactic moment? Particularly when you’re not necessarily the best editorial judge of character for your own writing?

First off, if you’re writing Christian fiction or something more introspective or spiritual, take a deep breath. Deus ex machinas are not automatically synonymous with miracles.

Miracles do actually happen in life. They might not be the norm, but they’re not unrealistic either. So if your protagonist has stage 4 cancer and pulls through anyway… that’s not a deus ex machina.

The same applies to a soldier who’s about to get shot but finds himself able to escape after he prays.

For that matter, it also goes for white knights racing onto the scene to rescue damsels in distress. (No matter how cheesy that may or may not be in its own right.)

It all comes down to what is possible within your story. What fits in your setting. What works with your world.

In other words, does it make logical sense based on everything else you’ve so carefully prepared?

If you start to squirm at that question, then there’s your answer. Go rewrite that scene.

This time, do it without something so silly as a deus ex machina.

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