This installment of Odd Writer Terminology comes from a literary device that’s as old as the ancient Greek tragedies, deus ex machina. This is when a problem in a story is solved by improbable means. In modern writing it is viewed as a huge don’t and something to be avoided.
The Latin phrase deus ex machina is defined as “a device, a scaffolding, an artifice” and is borrowed from a Greek expression meaning “god from the machine”. It originated with Greek theater when an actor would be lowered into the scene via a crane (the machine) or raised through a trapdoor. These characters would have the power to solve whatever problem the characters on stage were experiencing. Even in ancient times many were critical of the practice saying that the solutions to the plot should come as a result of the plot itself and not from an improbable surprise.
Here are a few made up examples:
Jake and Mindy have been trapped in a pit by the evil overlord Vance. Suddenly, Jake discovers that he has magic powers that will transport them out of the pit and to safety.
Because we hadn’t seen Jake having magic before it makes this solution a deus ex machina. Had Jake shown that he had these powers earlier then the solution would have been probable.
Alexander’s army is thirsty for the blood of the Prussian army. As they face each other on the battlefield the goddess of peace appears and pleads with them to lay down their weapons and return to their homes. They agree and peace is restored.
Anytime a deity shows up to solve a problem it will be considered deus ex machina. The only way it wouldn’t be is if that deity had been a solid presence throughout the story and her coming was a possibility before hand.
Sir Issac has been sentenced to death for his crimes. As he is walked to the gallows a messenger arrives. The kind and benevolent king has decided to grant Sir Issac a pardon.
Again we see a higher power intervene and save the character from a dark fate. Had a large part of the story been about Sir Issac seeking pardon for a false conviction then it wouldn’t be deus ex machina.
In these examples each problem was solved by a power greater than the characters possessed entering the scene. Usually these greater powers come in the form of magic, gods, or kings, but they can be anything that is beyond what the character can do.
To avoid deus ex machina it is important to introduce all the needed elements to solve the plot problems earlier in the story. This way, when it comes time to save the day nothing will come as an unexpected or improbable surprise.
Other installments in the Odd Writer Terminology series: