About deus ex machina

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Recently I read a novel by one of my favorite fantasy writers. I’ve already read several of her books and loved them. I loved this one too. The characters were multidimensional, and the plot compelling. But it was also oddly disappointing. You know why? Because the heroes, after all their struggling and suffering, failed to solve their problems. By the end of the story, they were still floundering, neck-deep in shit, when some minor character popped on the scene, solved their problems for them, and disappeared again like a well-behaved fairy godmother.

Granted, the problems the heroes faced were not of their choosing; they just got accidentally caught up in a nasty power game between a couple of foreign princes. Still, I felt cheated.

In the best stories, a hero must always deal with his predicament himself. It’s much more satisfying to a reader, when a hero finds his own way out of his jam than when someone else waves a magic wand, and PUFF! – all the storm clouds vanish, and the sun shines again.

As far as I know, such a literary trick is frowned upon by the modern writing theory. Of course, ancient Greeks used this device a lot. When a god stepped down from Olympus and cut through all the hero’s complications to reward him for good behavior, it was called deus ex machina. But it was two millennia ago.

Sometimes, the heroes can’t fix their conundrums, and the story becomes a tragedy. It happens. Think Romeo and Juliet. But if Shakespeare brought the kind Friar Laurence to the crypt a few minutes before Romeo killed himself, instead of a few minutes after Juliet followed her lover into death, I don’t think this story would’ve enjoyed such an immense popularity through the centuries. It would’ve been a farce.

Do we still use deus ex machina in today’s fiction? As a reader, I can attest that I didn’t like it in a story. As I writer, I go to great depths, so my heroes could deal with their messes themselves. And if they can’t, then I’m not doing my job as a writer properly. Maybe the problems are unsolvable, and if I don’t want a tragedy, I need to fix that. To nudge the story in the direction I want it to go.

Do you accept deus ex machina as a reader? Do you employ it in your own writing? Are there special conditions that warrant its implementation for you?

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21 Responses to About deus ex machina

  1. I think it is a bit of a cop-out. I haven’t seen it in a book lately but I did see it in a movie.

  2. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I agree that the main characters should deal with their own problems. I get disappointed when they don’t too, especially if we’re in later books in a series where readers really expect them too.

  3. I can understand your disappointment and I agree. No thank you!

  4. And a chorus of agreement from me too. If the protagonist cannot solve their own problem, then a tragedy is my preferred option rather than deus ex machina.

  5. No, the main character has to be the one to solve the problem. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of them?

  6. patgarcia says:

    For me, I like to see a change in my main character as he or she moves toward a solution and I like to see him or her find it. Therefore I don’t care for the above method at all.
    All the best and be safe.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  7. cleemckenzie says:

    There was something stunning when Zeus swept down from the clouds; however, he usually was bent on punishment, not rescue–unless it was a hapless young nymph. Today, we like to see people struggle out of their own predicament and let the “higher powers” attend to more lofty matters.

  8. jmh says:

    That would bother me too. Seems like lazy writing. I’ve written myself into a corner many times, and it’s taken a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to figure out a solution, but I would never resort to a cop-out.

  9. emaginette says:

    Saving the day out of the blue is not where I go and when I see it… Well, I’m disappointed.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  10. Lee Lowery says:

    Nope. Quite right, Olga. That mechanism might have passed muster decades ago, but today, it’s just lazy. And some best-selling, famous authors have resorted to this laziness, much to my disappointment.

  11. I don’t care for it as a reader, so I try hard not to do it as a writer. 🙂

  12. I don’t think I’ve done that as a writer. I don’t think I’d like it very much as a reader. It seems too easy. I like complicated stories.

  13. Remember a hundred years ago on Dallas when they brought a character back by simply having the female lead wake up from a whole season’s dream? Haha. They (writers) got away with it because it hadn’t been done on TV before. The 2nd show to try failed miserably. I’m with you. Don’t cheat your reader by being lazy.

  14. yvettecarol says:

    I’m with you, Olga, I can’t stand it. The use of such devices is enough to put me off a book altogether. I strive to make my characters earn their prizes.

  15. ChrysFey says:

    That would disappoint and annoy me, as well.

  16. Denise Covey says:

    Yep. In my mind, a hero’s not a hero if he/she can’t be victorious in the end. A little sidebar. That’s what got many readers, latterly championing women’s place in the world, hating the romance trope when a man solves the fair maiden’s problems.

    Stay safe and well, Olga. Thoughts from Down Under to you up there in Canada!

    • Olga Godim says:

      I always wanted a guy to ride in on a white charger and solve my problems for me, but alas, I never got my wish. Didn’t hobnob with the right guys, I suppose, so I had to solve all my problems myself. Maybe that’s why all my heroines always solve their own problems. The guys are just not there.

  17. jlennidorner says:

    I feel like that’s a good reason to have an internal and external conflict. That way, if the hero can’t solve one, at least there’s a chance at solving the other. Like in the movie Deep Impact. Leo Biederman can’t stop the killer comet. But he can save Sarah, save his life and hers. Of course, that’s a movie, and it has multiple main characters. But I can’t think of a good book example right this second.

    • Olga Godim says:

      Hi, J. Lenni. I always visit the blogs of my friends who comment on my posts, but I couldn’t find your website nor your blog. Something is wrong with its link here. I even tried the link on Goodreads, and it doesn’t work either. 😦

  18. Rebecca Douglass says:

    I agree with your assessment. The MC has to have agency, and if they lose it–if they just keep reacting and never acting, or if someone else comes along and solves all the problems–there’s no growth. I haven’t seen that sort of thing much, but it does show up in kids’ books sometimes. My books tend to be all about learning to solve your own problems 🙂

  19. Thank you Olga for this insight into deus ex machina. I agree with you on the whole. However I enjoy a nudge in the right direction sometimes in a story. But it is the most rewarding when the hero actually catches the drift of the nudge, then works it all out for himself.
    See you on IWSG May.

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