Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for deus ex machina

Deus ex machina: literally meaning "God in the machine," where an outside force appears at the final moments of a story to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem.

Usually when people talk about deus ex machina, they're criticizing a writer for painting him or herself into a corner, plot-wise, and using any method possible to get out of it. Certainly, it's probably not the most satisfying ending in the world to have a cop suddenly show up and shoot all the bad guys, despite no one having called the cops.

But some deus ex machina works, in my opinion:

When a flood saves the Soggy Bottom Boys at the end of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

When Larry and Ralph are being crucified in The Stand just as the Trashcan Man returns from the desert with the nuclear warhead he'd been sent to find.

When it turns out the magic shop already had the weapon of a god--Olaf's Hammer--before Buffy's big fight with Glory in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When John arrives after the gates of hell are opened in Supernatural, giving his son Dean time to find the Colt and save the day.

When Jack sets the island on fire in Lord of the Flies, which allows a naval ship to see the island and rescue all the boys.

Of course, there are times where it doesn't work. For every person that likes the ending of The Stand, there is another person saying, "God saved them? Really, God saved them?"

And as much as I love Hamlet--pirates? Really, pirates? Well, thank goodness that the ending makes up for it.

What examples of deus ex machina work for you, and which ones don't?


  1. wow i learned something new awesome

  2. I may never forgive George Lucas for resolving 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' with the lame aliens-did-it ending. If the bad-guy could pull still-beating hearts out of chests in 'Temple of Doom', there had to be a better possible explanation than aliens.

  3. I'm ashamed of the superfluous hyphen in my last comment. Bonus points if you spotted it on the first read.

  4. I think it works best in comedies, where it's more plausible for something to come completely out of left field (maybe even literally, if it's a comedy about baseball). Otherwise, it's probably better to cater to Chekov's gun, and add the seed of the deus ex machina early on. (Or, just use Chekov's gun to silence all the people who try to criticize you for your decision.)

  5. I always liked it in Buffy because I really appreciate the way that Buffy used details liked that over the course of the season. I'm a big fan of continuity. (Also, the part where Anya points it out is sort of hilarious.)

    The magical slayer axe at the series finale seemed a little more contrived to me.

    It definitely doesn't work in Breaking Dawn. (Then again, what does work in that book?) Really, Bella, who has not talent or personality whatsoever, is the best vampire ever and also has the ability to project shields? It's not even a cool deus ex machina.

    Mostly though, I am comfortable with deus ex machina. I always did like that Medea got to live. All child murder aside, Jason seemed like kind of a scumbag.

    1. Agreed, the magic axe was a little bit too much, esp combined with the magic temple full of women (that has apparently been in Sunnydale, without Buffy knowing about it, forever ...)

  6. I agree with Aaron about the Crystal Skull. And I totally agree with you about the ending of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  7. Not-so-great writers can definitely abuse this literary device but when used properly it can add to the realism. Sometimes in real life stuff just happens that seems impossibly coincidental!