User:TheLedBalloon/Deus ex machina

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A deus ex machina is a literary device which authors occasionally use to resolve a seemingly unresolvable plot. It involves taking into consideration all that has happened previously in the plot, all the subtleties and nuances that separate the characters from one another, and all the internal logic of the story so far--and then tossing it out the window. It is an author's way out, so to speak, a quick and painless (for the writer, at least) way to end it all without having to waste time doing something dumb like actually thinking about how a story would really end.


Literally translated, a deus ex machina is a "god from the machine." It refers to the ancient Greek poets' use of cranes or lifts to bring gods into the play to instantly resolve the plot. A typical Greek play might happen thusly: A strong but proud man lives a fulfilling life until something horrible returns from his past. His life begins to deteriorate until his pride causes an ultimate downfall. Then the gods show up and fix everything. The first person to refer to this plotting tool as a deus ex machina was the Roman poet Horace, though he actually coined the term accidentally. When he first named the device, Horace was actually trying to encourage ancient pornographers to rely less on the "sex machines of the gods," the terminology used to describe ancient vibrators. Horace was apparently arguing the merits of regular dildos, which he was known to personally prefer.


A modern deus ex machina can work in a few ways. Its most common usage usually requires three basic steps to be a true deus ex machina. These three steps are:

  1. The story's hero backed into a corner. The corner may be literal or figurative, but it must be all but inescapable. It seems as though it's curtains for our protagonist. However...
  2. Then something unexpected happens. This is the deus ex machina. And, thanks to it...
  3. Everything is resolved. Hooray! I sure am glad that the satellite fell out of orbit and onto the mad scientist's death ray's generator before it could annihilate the hero. How wonderful it is that just as the killer was about to cut the heroine to ribbons, a tree fell on him. What a happy surprise that right before the bomb's timer reached zero, it turned out that the antagonist was actually really poor at wiring at explosives and accidentally built a toaster instead.

However, this is not the only way in which a deus ex machina may be employed. A writer might also use this device, especially in slasher movies, in a kind of reversal of the other method. Again, this has three steps:

  1. Everything is resolved. The killer is dead, the heroes have escaped, and the lovers are together at last. It's a happy time in the plot of this movie. However...
  2. Then something unexpected happens. This, again, is the deus ex machina, and thanks to it...
  3. Everything is fucked up. Just kidding, the killer was actually just unconscious or faking or an unkillable zombie, the heroes only thought they got away from whatever it was they were trying to get away from, and the protagonist's wife has terminal cancer. Sorry viewer, but this one is ending on a down note!

Famous uses[edit]

Throughout fiction from both modern and ancient times, we find writers that felt no need to constrain the endings of their works by dealing with such trivialities as everything that happened previously in the plot. The most famous of these might be William Golding's masterpiece The Lord of the Flies. This thought-provoking novel tells the story of a group of young boys, stranded on a tropical island, that are forced to construct their own civilization, which gradually disintegrates thanks to the absence of society and the inherently evil nature of British schoolboys. The boys begin well enough, but internal conflict and a tendency to overcompensate for having been in a choir causes them to kill two of their own, and spiral rapidly down into self destruction until the author gets bored with it and decides to end the story.

Cquote1.png Ralph ran down the beach as quickly as he could. His lungs burned in his chest, and the heat of the fire was making him sweat until his clothes grew damp. He could hear the other boys behind him, gaining fast, their spears dragging through the underbrush until they reached the open beach, where their feet pattered like war drums on the sand. Ralph reached the ocean and ...uhh...started swimming? Nah, nah, he...uhh... oh fuck it, and then a plane landed with a British dude in it and everyone cried because they missed their mommies or whatever the end. Cquote2.png

—First Edition of Lord of the Flies, prior to editing

However, Lord of the Flies is by no means the only well-known use of deus ex machina. H. G. Wells's novel War of the Words and its many remakes on other mediums for example also employ the plot device:

Cquote1.png I gave up all hope, and decided to run headlong at the aliens. A kind of suicide, in hopes that they would end my life quickly and without pain. The aliens had totally destroyed all kinds of shit and I was really just like, 'fuck it,' so I figured I'd let them off me. I didn't really want the book to end on a down note though, so, suddenly the aliens all caught a cold and died or something. Cquote2.png

—First Edition of War of the Worlds, prior to editing, but after several shots of tequila

Clearly the deus ex machina's use is totally justified because those guys did it.

Place in the writing process[edit]

  1. Story going well
  2. Suspense builds
  3. writers block
  4. Deus ex machina
  5. ???
  6. Profit!