terminology: deux ex machina

| Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Today's Tune: Shiksa (Girlfriend)

Okay, back to business as usual after my super serious post from Monday.

Literary device discussion time!

Deux ex machina is a term you've probably heard before. It means "God from the Machine," and is a literary device that is sometimes used and oftentimes frowned upon.

The basic idea behind deux ex machina is that the plot is moved forward by the timely introduction of something new that solves a problem previously unsolvable. It often appears in the form of divine intervention, a vision, a new character, a previously dormant ability, a convenient object, or something similar. This new element is introduced at a point where the plot is "stuck," or a problem seems too big to solve without some serious help.

An example of deux ex machina would be: a hero is defeated. As he lays on the ground, bloody and dying, an angel/demigod appears to him, heals him, and grants him the power of a God so he can achieve his goal.

Another example: our protagonist and companions are baffled. They have no idea how to solve their problem. Suddenly! A character who has displayed zero psychic ability before this point has A VISION! They know what to do now!

So, why is deux ex machina usually frowned upon? It's considered lazy or weak plotting. And right now, everyone is thinking of eight million novels where it's employed effectively, heh. It CAN be employed effectively. However, when it's misused, it leaves your readers feeling pissy and like you cheated them out of a quality plot twist. It can very easily appear as though you had no idea what to do with your plot, so you made up a quick fix without thinking it through.

How do you avoid this? It's pretty simple, actually. Don't take the shortcut. Creating a functioning and flowing plot is work. It might involve scrapping entire sections, going back to incorporate new threads, tightening, smoothing, and general tweaking. Don't attempt to circumvent fine-tuning your plot by dropping a random (but VERY convenient) new element into the middle of your story. Unless you've set up your plot to account for your character suddenly developing telekinesis or random scientists/hackers/alien geniuses cropping up, don't do it.

If you insist on using this literary technique, go back through your early chapters and weave it into the story so it doesn't come out of nowhere. That way, it'll read like you had it planned all along, rather than panicking in the third act and throwing in a divine intervention because you had no idea how your protagonist was going to pull it off otherwise.


{ Matthew Rush } at: April 7, 2010 at 6:45 AM said...

So true, thanks for sharing Steph.

The hard part is the work. If you haven't planned ahead for a certain twist it requires a lot of time going back and setting it up.

If you don't do just that though, you'll look exactly like what you're being: lazy.

{ Portia } at: April 7, 2010 at 10:16 AM said...

Great post! On a side note, I adore saying the words, deux ex machina. I make up excuses to use it in speech cause I really, really like the way it sounds.

{ Wendy Ramer } at: April 7, 2010 at 10:30 AM said...

Great advice. And you're right - I can think of many instances where deux ex machina has been used, mostly in the shows my kids watch. (Oh no! How will iCarly resolve THAT dilemma? Oh, look! It seems Carly is also a techno-geek who can miraculously fix computers when Freddy isn't around....I DON'T THINK SO!)

{ Shelley Sly } at: April 7, 2010 at 4:49 PM said...

Amen. I'm with you. I definitely like to see some build up, some reason why/how the conflict is resolved. It annoys me when it comes out of nowhere.

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