How to avoid Deus Ex Machina

To avoid Deus Ex Machina, (pronounced dayus ex mack-in-a), you first have to understand what it is and what it can do to a story.  And when you understand what it is, you can avoid the urge to use it.

Deus Ex Machina literally means ‘God from the Machine’ and has its origins in classic Greek theatre. It’s a literary device that is as welcome as a large dose of adverbs, simply because it absolves the writer of any responsibility – it acts as the hand of God by swooping in to miraculously (and conveniently) save the day (and the story). Unsolvable problems convenient get solved, characters are miraculously saved from peril by unexpected and convenient means and things become contrived.

Writers often resort to deus ex machina when they’ve run out of ideas and don’t know any way to progress, or they’ve got into a situation with their characters that would not be logical or believable, and they can’t readily resolve this. While this may be convenient for the writer, the reality is that it weakens the story.  That’s because it undermines it and can devalue the writing. Readers won’t be too impressed either because any contrived ‘miracle’ way out is so unexpected that they just won’t believe a word of it.  Remember that whenever your characters are in a tight spot, you as the writer must find logical and believable ways for them to escape – it’s part of the excitement and drama the reader wants and expects. If a hitherto unknown element appears out of nowhere, then it won’t be A) believable or B) logical.

For example, your hero is cornered in an old warehouse by the bad guys during the build up to the finale. He’s truly stuck, with no apparent means of escape, but he scratches around and manages to find all sorts of parts and bits of equipment that is conveniently lying around and he’s able to construct a homemade firearm – without this ability or skill ever being made known to the reader at any point during the preceding story.  It’s a miracle!

Well, no, this is deus ex machina. It’s a miracle get out clause. Hero in trouble? Magically give them a previously unknown skill or let another hitherto unknown character swoop in and rescue them without warning.  Stuck with the story?  Magically transport to another chapter or scene without any explanation to the reader and carry on as if nothing happened.

It’s convenient, but that kind of thing doesn’t wash with readers, and it certainly won’t get past editors.

But how can you avoid it?

The best way to avoid it is to ensure that you give the reader information from the outset. It’s a fundamental requirement of any story – give the reader as much detail as possible; let them know about your character’s background and their abilities, skills and experiences so as not to create the need for opportune, miracle escapes and ridiculous convoluted scenes later in the story.

Make sure you plan your story so that you know how it begins, what might happen in the middle and how it might end. That way you’ll have some idea what to do with your characters and the story and you won’t need to create convenient situations to get your characters out of a jam or cheat the reader.

If we take the example above with the hero cornered in a warehouse, the writer could have informed the reader earlier in the story that the hero used to be in the armed forces and learned to be resourceful, so the ability to make a home-made firing device is less implausible when, later in the story, he’s surrounded by bad guys and it looks like there’s no escape. The reader will know that his skills will come in handy, and so it’s an accepted and believable part of the story.

So always inform the reader, drop in lots of information about your characters and know what situations will happen so that you can write them correctly. Always make it believable and logical. That way you won’t leave the reader scratching their heads.

Next week: Using clues and red herrings


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