Deus Ex Machina: God Is Not A Crutch

Breaking Dawn is one of Stephanie Meyer’s most popular books, but it has within its pages a literary device that is something good writers should learn to use properly: deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina is defined by my handy Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory (Penguin) as: “any unanticipated intervener who resolves a difficult situation, in any literary genre.” The term is Latin for “god out of the machine” and refers to a device used in ancient Greek drama by which a “god” was lowered onto the stage by a mechane so that the “god” could rescue the hero from a difficult situation. In essence, the hero did not have to “earn” their way out of it.

Back to Breaking Dawn. At the end of the novel, Alice (who is Edward’s “sister” and who is a major presence throughout most of the narrative) appears just before the major battle at the end and brings the solution to the problem that ends the fight before it ever begins. This is, in many ways, the lamest ending on recent record, and this is what all good writers need to avoid.

Good writers know when to use this device, however some do not though the world has embraced them. Tolkien, at the end of Return of the King writes that the Eagles dive in and save Frodo and Samwise at the mouth of Mount Doom as it is destroying itself. Then there is the simple solution to H.G. Welles’s War of the Worlds. Germs? Really? The misuse of deus ex machina has in recent years given rise to a web site entitled “How It Should Have Ended,” because deep down, I think some of us have our hopes dashed when authors take these easy routes rather than let their characters experience the consequences of their actions. We can forgive Tolkien because he’d already written a giant tome of how Frodo and Sam reached their destination and entertained us while making us think about ourselves. His use of the device blends well with the rest of the narrative.  War of the Worlds and Breaking Dawn utilize the device as a major plot point, and herein lies their flaw.

What is the solution, you ask? I believe in letting my characters experience real problems and then use real ways to deal with them. This can be done in any genre, and takes careful plotting through an outline. If a character meets their end in the novel I am currently writing, I don’t shed a tear. They are only constructs of my imagination and the plot has already been designed that way. I have reasons for their death that may or may not be seen in the text. Characters are simply there to drive the subtext and to make us relate to the themes and ideas expressed by the author.

Real death is visceral. As Guildenstern says in Tom Stoppard’s famous play: “No one gets up after death — there is no applause — there is only silence and some second-hand clothes.”  It is more fun and shocking to the reader to see a beloved character die spectacularly… or have a very real sense that they don’t go on forever. It allows writers to toy with the imagination of readers and keep them in a state of suspended disbelief, wondering who will be next, wondering who will survive.

What do you think? Sound off about this literary device. Is it taboo or can it be done well so that readers do not wish to clip the lines of the “god” swooping in to save the hero?

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “Deus Ex Machina: God Is Not A Crutch

  1. I like your use of Meyer’s ending for the 4th book. If she had the guts, she could have made it actually interesting (and maybe wrung another book out of it in the process). Of course, in terms of letting characters die, I cannot help but think of Joss Whedon. That man absolutely loves to shake things up with a character’s death (although I could just kill him for killing off two of my beloved Firefly characters in the movie).

      1. I actually use Joss’ name as a verb. For example, if some character all of a sudden dies, I declare, “Aww, they got Whedoned.”

  2. While I totally agree with you about Breaking Dawn having the lamest ending in recent history, I have to disagree with you placing War of the Worlds in the same category.

    I think what H.G. Wells did was quite brilliant. The aliens were technologically more advanced, and we stood zero chance of winning the war. The only other ending I can see is one where the human race is completely obliterated, which if Mr. Wells had opted to go for such an end would have resulted in a whole noda can of worms.

    I found your blog through the A-Z Challenge by the way; I am a fellow participant.

  3. Don’t know if you ever saw the movie Adaptation, but there’s a great scene in which story guru Robert McKee exhorts against using deus ex machina. The line is actually pretty clever: “God help you if you use deus ex machina!” Oddly enough, one of the plot twists that moves the film toward its conclusion is also an example of deus ex machina, but it’s a self-aware instance of the phenomenon, so it works in the context of the movie. Of course, as your post suggests, this example is definitely the exception to the rule!

  4. HaHa! I remember my 9th grade English teacher in Ponca City talking about characters “dropped” in to save the day. Good writing tip, too! 😉

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