Have you ever read or watched a story where the characters get out of trouble, seemingly, by chance? Like in The Phantom Menace, where a giant fish is chasing Qui Gon and Obi-Wan when an even bigger fish eats the first one out of nowhere? If so, then you’ve experienced deus ex machina. Ok, maybe you’re not as big a Star Wars fan as I am, but don’t worry!
Today we’re going to answer the question, “What is deus ex machina?” We’ll also teach you how to pronounce it, look at some examples, and discuss the origins of deus ex machina.
What is deus ex machina?
Deus ex machina is a storytelling technique where a character’s conflict is solved by the sudden appearance of a new character or an implausible event. The problem with deus ex machina is that it comes off as cheap to readers.
By its nature, deus ex machina is not foreshadowed or hinted at by the author. When something happens ‘out of nowhere’ that resolves a hero’s problem, readers view that as lazy storytelling. These events seem contrived by a writer who can’t develop a natural solution to their hero’s dilemma. Deus ex machina also robs the story’s hero of their agency, as they are not solving the plot’s conflict.
Deus ex machina definition
Deus ex machina is a storytelling technique where a character’s conflict is solved by the sudden appearance of a new character or an implausible event. This event, or character, usually saves the hero from an otherwise hopeless situation.
Deus ex machina meaning
Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine.” It is a Latin phrase, but the term originated in ancient Greece. Deus ex machina is a calque, or loan translation of the Greek term apò mēkhanês theós, but don’t ask me how to say that.
Deus ex machina origin
As a plot device, deus ex machina originated in ancient Greek theater, where it was common for gods to intervene to resolve the plot. Actors playing gods would lower from a crane or rise from the floor using a lift. In these plays, actors playing gods were literally entering the stage from a machine.
The most well-known user of this plot device was the Greek dramatist Euripides. Most Euripides’ plays are tragedies, and over half of them conclude with a deus ex machina. Take, for example, Medea.
Medea is a tragedy about a princess and wife of the Greek hero- Jason. When Jason leaves Medea for another woman, she takes vengeance on him by killing his new wife as well as her own children. After killing her children, Medea escapes to Athens on a chariot given to her by her grandfather and the sun god, Helios.
In this scene, the actress playing Medea would appear above the stage in the chariot. The Greeks accomplished this scene with a crane that would lower the chariot from off stage. The plot device has continued in popularity into modern times, although it has evolved to encompass more than just divine intervention.
For example, in the theatrical comedy, Tartuffe, written in 1664, the characters are saved in the end by French King Louis XIV rather than a god. And, even the use of time travel in the Marvel blockbuster film Avengers: Endgame could be considered a deus ex machina.
How to pronounce deus ex machina
day – uhs – eks – maa – kuh – nuh
Problems with this plot device
The problem with deus ex machina is that it can come off as cheap and uninspired by readers. Or, even worse, using this plot device can seem like a lazy way to resolve a hopeless situation for a reader.
I think we’ve all experienced a final act resolution that seemed to come out of nowhere. Deus ex machina can come off as too convenient, too easy, and not an earned win for the main character or characters.
However, like all things, there are two sides to deus ex machina. Used in the right genre and properly foreshadowed, deus ex machina can work in a story. That said, I wanted to get some opinions, from writers and readers, on this contended plot device. So, I reached out to my newsletter list, and here’s a few responses I got:
“Fantasy, Science Fiction, Magical Realism–and maybe even some Dystopian pieces–can successfully incorporate the surprise of a contrived or miraculous salvation. However, the Deus ex machina, or a god-like twist, which saves the protagonist within a no-win situation, is not well received by the reader of the more mainstream genres. This stretch beyond the logical allowing the deus ex machina, cannot be described as a lesser plot device as it suits legitimate genres.”
– Sara Jen link
Sara holds a MA in English Lit & Rhetoric and has taught English and Drama at the college and secondary level for twenty-five years, and you can pick up a copy of her book Facing September over at Amazon.
Still, deus ex machina can cause problems for even the best plots:
“Endings are hard. Storytelling would be easy if all anyone had to do was pile problem after terrible problem onto a character, then end the story by saying, ‘Jane woke up with a start. ‘Oh, it was all a dream!” Deus ex machina cheats us of a satisfying catharsis after all our emotional investment in the characters and their problems. Endings are hard; that doesn’t mean authors are excused from coming up with one.”
– Margaux Yiu
Margaux is a Visual Storyteller, Fiction Story Editor, and professional Writer. Click here to check out her profile on Editors Canada! Let’s look at one last succinct opinion on deus ex machina:
“Deus ex Machina is laziness. To say ‘God did it’ shows an unwillingness to plot your story properly.”
– David Smyth
David is an Australian reader and writer.
All this isn’t to say that you can’t deus ex machina effectively. Writers like Euripides and Shakespear used the plot device fairly regularly. Like any good plot point, a divine intervention should be appropriately set up and foreshadowed if you want to avoid it coming off as lazy. Speaking of foreshadowing, that brings us to our next point.
Deus ex machina vs. plot twist
You may consider deus ex machina a plot twist. The two plot devices do have a few things in common. Both are sudden events that seemingly come from nowhere to upend the narrative. But, a good plot twist will have a few things that a deus ex machina won’t have.
First off, while a deus ex machina will usually get a character out of a hopeless situation, a plot twist might very well put the character in one. Plot twists can be positive or negative events in terms of a protagonist.
Divine or magical interventions are usually reserved for the end of a story, an event that resolves the story’s conflict. A plot twist can stand in for any plot point of a story. A plot twist can be the first inciting event, a mid-plot surprise, or a final act reveal. Plot twists can create a conflict or resolve one.
The final and most crucial difference between a plot twist and deus ex machina is foreshadowing and set up. A plot twist may be unexpected, but good writers will always drop hints that that plot twist is coming. You may not notice these hints on the first read-through, but looking back, readers will see the signs of what’s coming.
Deus ex machina, on the other hand, usually comes out of nowhere. There is little to no hint that the cavalry will swoop in at the last minute and save our hero from impending doom. Writers will set up their plot twists while deus ex machina comes as a total surprise and seems contrived.
Now, let’s look at some examples of deus ex machina in action.
Examples from literature, film, & tv
Although deus ex machina is considered a cheap trick by most refined readers and viewers, writers often use it. Let’s look at some examples from literature, film, and TV. You can decide whether or not these stories use deus ex machina to its full extent or if it’s just a cheap trick on the readers.
Deus ex machina in literature
In H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds is a science fiction thriller written by famed sci-fi author H.G. Wells and published in 1897. The novel tells the story of Martian invaders who enslave the population of Earth using colossal, three-legged war machines. The invaders seem unstoppable until the novel’s final chapters when the protagonist discovers that the Martians are dying from an infection of earthly pathogens.
As the novel puts it, “slain after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon this earth.” Although readers widely praise The War of the Worlds, some have criticized the ending as contrived.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
In William Golding’s debut novel, Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, we follow a group of stranded pre-teen boys. During wartime evacuation, the boys evacuate from their homes on an airplane that crashes, leaving them on an uninhabited island.
The boys put a lot of effort into recreating civilized society, but they succumb to their fear and worst instincts despite their best efforts. Eventually, the boys turn all their anger onto the story’s protagonist, a boy named Jack. A mob of boys chases Jack to the shores of the island, ready to murder him with sharpened sticks.
Then, out of nowhere, a British naval officer arrives in time to save Jack’s life. Although some label this ending deus ex machina, others have argued that it fits into the broad themes of the novel. To many readers, the naval officer represented the so-called civil society, embroiled in war, that the boys recreated on their island.
Deus ex machina in film and tv
In Battlestar Galactica
The 2004 reboot of sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica has a complicated plot that spans four seasons. I won’t recap the entire story here (I couldn’t if I tried), but the show involves a fleet of human refugees searching the cosmos for a fabled planet called Earth.
Late in the show, one of the main characters, a pilot named Kara, is killed; however, she reappears as if by magic. In the last episode, Kara guides the fleet of human survivors to Earth, and once there, she disappears, having fulfilled her destiny. It turns out the real Kara had always been dead, and the Kara of the final season was an angel.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the story of Indiana Jones as he searches for the Lost Ark of the Bible. Unfortunately for Indy, he finds the Ark but quickly loses it to a group of Nazis led by a rival archeologist.
Lucky for Indy, Nazis are stupid, and they open the Ark only to immediately have their faces melted off by the vengeful spirit of the Old Testament God. That guy didn’t mess around.
Deus Ex Machina in The Matrix
This one is a little different, as Deus Ex Machina is the name of a character in the Matrix film franchise. Deus is an artificial intelligence and leader of the antagonist machines in the film series. He makes a deal with the hero Neo, in which the two trap and kill the rogue Agent Smith program.
So, in the context of the films, the Deus Ex Machina character is the actual god in the machine. This is a little too on the nose if you ask me. It would have been better if the character named Deus Ex Machina did not become a literal deus ex machina plot device. This seems like the filmmakers are self-aware enough to know they are using this controversial plot device but trying to hide it as a bit of clever irony.
So, maybe the jury’s still out on deus ex machina. Even after writing this article, I’m unsure whether it’s a good or bad plot device. I guess it all depends on the story’s context and the writer’s talent for using it. This means if you’re an aspiring writer and want to use deus ex machina or any plot device, you need to refine your craft.
On a lot of these fiction articles, I like to provide a writing exercise so you can do just that, but for this one, I’m going to recommend you check out some of my templates and workbooks. They’re a good way for you to practice, and if you like my work, they help support the blog!
Continued reading on deus ex machina: