I. What is Deus Ex Machina?
Deus ex machina (pronounced DAY-us ex MACK-in-uh) is Latin for “a god from the machine.” It’s when some new character, force, or event suddenly shows up to solve a seemingly hopeless situation. The effect is usually unexpected, and it’s often disappointing for audiences. It’s as if the author has brought us to the climactic moment of tension and suspense, and then simply said, “But then everything was suddenly OK.” It undermines the tension of the story, and seems to suggest that sheer blind luck is the ultimate determining force in the hero’s life. How unsatisfying!
The original phrase referred to a scene in Greek theater where a “god” (actor) would be lowered in on a mechanical crane to set everything straight at the end of a play.
SPOILER ALERT! This article discusses the endings of many popular movies and books. Read with caution!
II. Examples of Deus Ex Machina
Perhaps the most famous example comes from (some versions of) the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. In the original story, Little Red Riding Hood is simply eaten by the wolf. But some later authors, deciding that this was too sad for young children, decided to add a random woodsman who appears right at the end and kills the wolf. The woodsman has played no part in the story up until now, and his appearance seems to be pure luck.
Every once in a while, the weapons in a James Bond movie will prove to be deus ex machina. If the weapons are discussed in advance, then it’s fine. But sometimes the film will introduce weapons out of nowhere right at the climactic moment. Or, more commonly, some minor gadget will turn out to have unexpected, and somewhat implausible, properties – for example, the magnet watch in Live and Let Die helps Bond cut through a rope, despite the fact that this ability was never discussed previously.
Every once in a while, a deus ex machina occurs in real life. In 1274 and 1281, for example, the Mongols tried to attack Japan but were defeated by freak typhoons that saved the islands from invasion. If you were writing a narrative history of this period, it would be important to discuss the occurrence of typhoons in the Sea of Japan so that this turn of events would not seem too abrupt or random. (At the very least, you’d want to foreshadow the typhoons by describing the gathering clouds as the Mongols were preparing to cross the sea).
III. The Importance of Deus Ex Machina
Deus ex machina is a flaw in the plot of a story. It shows that the author has not thought carefully enough to either:
- Establish the relevant characters, forces, etc. in advance; or
- Craft a believable ending out of the narrative pieces that are already in play.
Deus ex machina often occurs when an author has “written himself into a corner” – that is, the entire plot of the story is established, but the author cannot come up with a satisfying ending. Deus ex machna is a way of ensuring that the good guys win even when the writer has not laid the groundwork for ensuring that this is possible.
In addition to creating unsatisfying endings, deus ex machina is also a way of violating the established rules of a narrative world. Every author constructs a world with characters, forces, and rules worked out in advance. This is a big part of what’s supposed to get done in the beginning stages of a novel. But when those rules are suddenly changed near the end so that the hero will win, it results in deus ex machina. Ernest Hemingway famously referred to this as “cheating.”
IV. Examples of Deus Ex Machina from Literature
Near the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the heroes are stranded on the slopes of Mount Doom as the mountain crumbles around them. They appear to be doomed! But then, out of nowhere, giant eagles appear to rescue them. The eagles have not been a major part of the story up until now, and their sudden appearance is never explained. Many fans of both the books and the movies consider this to have been a misstep on the part of the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.
There’s a debatable example of deus ex machina in the ending of War of the Worlds. The alien invasion is at its worst when the Martians begin to fall sick – it turns out that they have no immunity to Earth’s bacteria and viruses, and so they can’t survive here. This is certainly an unexpected resolution of a seemingly hopeless situation. But to Wells’s credit, the whole book is crafted around a concept of “Earth’s last line of defense,” and the concept at the end is that nature, not man, is the true defender of the planet. People disagree about whether this is a true deus ex machina.
V. Examples of Deus Ex Machina from Pop Culture
Night Shyamalan’s movies are frequently criticized as being too dependent on deus ex machina endings. For example, in Signs the main character’s home is being invaded by deadly aliens, when he suddenly and randomly realizes that the aliens can be killed by water. He’s able to use this unexpected knowledge to slay the aliens.
In the Twilight series, one of the main plot points is the vampires’ insatiable thirst for human blood. Yet when Bella is turned into a vampire, she feels none of this thirst because, apparently, if you choose to be turned then the thirst somehow does not affect you. This mechanic is not set up earlier in the series, and it’s simply too convenient to be plausible, so it’s a deus ex machina.
In one of the animated Donald Duck cartoons, the villain Tachyon Farflung tries to capture Huey, Dewey, and Louie using a specially-designed hypnosis device. Right when they are about to be captured, it suddenly turns out that they’ve been trained to resist such hypnosis, so they escape unharmed.
VI. Related terms
The line between deus ex machina and a successful plot twist is somewhat subjective. Plot twists are often the most compelling part of the story, and they may well happen at or near the dramatic climax. But when these plot twists seem to emerge from the narrative world built by the author, they aren’t deus ex machina. In the end, the difference between plot twists and deus ex machina is whether or not the audience accepts them as plausible and compelling!
The general rule of thumb is that there should be clues along the way. The story should establish, at least in very subtle fashion, that the particular plot twist was a possibility. Readers may say “I didn’t see that coming!” but they wouldn’t say “That doesn’t make sense.”
For example, when Good King Richard returns at the end of Robin Hood, it’s more of a plot twist than deus ex machina, because Richard has been in the background the whole time – characters are constantly referring to Prince John as a pretender and reminding the audience that there’s a true king out there somewhere who could be coming back.