When I was six, I wrote a story for school. Sadly it’s lost to the mists of time, but I can remember the broad strokes. It was an adventure where my friends and I went to the moon in a rocket. We had some problems on the way though. The place where you put the fuel fell out (I couldn’t remember the term fuel tank, or understand that rockets might not have the same type as a car). Also, when we arrived, the rocket rolled off the side of the moon.
These were some big issues, but thankfully I had simple solutions. Some birds came and held the rocket up, and then some bats helped them when we got to space. (It makes sense. Really. Space is dark, which is the same as night time, where bats live. Come on, people, do I really have to spell this out?) They helped us for the whole three days I’d heard it would take a rocket to reach the moon.
But once we were stranded, how did we get back? Easily! We just used our magic and teleported home. I was a genius. I’d written myself into a corner and found a great way to get free. I was very proud of myself. The headmaster’s secretary typed the story for me on a real computer, and I got to read it out in assembly.
For all the six-year-olds reading my blog, these sorts of plot developments are brilliant. For everyone else, they’re probably best avoided. Why? Because they fall firmly into the category of deus ex machina. This term literally means ‘god from the machine’, and refers to an unlikely occurrence that resolves a problem. Most readers don’t tend to like them unless they’re used deliberately for a very specific – often humorous – purpose. For example, go and watch The Simpsons (Season 10, Episode 21) and see how Mr Burns managed to capture the Loch Ness Monster.
Most books thrive on tension, and some form of risk. P. R. Otagonist gets into trouble, and now they’re in danger. Whether of getting killed, fired or dumped (or killed by being dumped into a fire) is up to you. Basically, your reader needs to feel like things could go wrong. Putting in an overly convenient escape cuts that tension, and can often leave people feeling cheated.
Are there any examples of Deus Ex Machina lurking in your own work? Instead of giving your character(s) an easy way out, can you go the other way? How can things get more complicated? If your main character’s being threatened by a mugger, do you need to let them off the hook? Instead of having your MC escape through a convenient side door, could they just get mugged instead? If you’re able to build this into your plot or include it as a logical subplot, it could add plenty of tension. It might be harder to write, but it’s likely to be far more satisfying for your readers.
Can you think of any examples of deus ex machina in popular fiction? How did it make you feel? If you could rewrite it, what would you do differently? Get in touch and let me know!