Deus ex machina is a story-telling technique that writers can use to resolve seemingly impossible problems in their plots. In this post, we’ll describe examples of this device, from classical Greek and Shakespearean plays to modern literature and film.
First though, we’ll explore the origins of this literary term and discuss how to use it effectively.
What Does Deus Ex Machina Mean?
Deus ex machina (pronounced day-us eks mah kee nuh) is a Latin term that means “god from the machine.” It refers to devices used in ancient Greek theaters to dramatically bring a god (played by an actor) onto the stage. Typically, the sudden appearance of a deity would lead to the resolution of all conflicts and a happy ending to the play.
Nowadays, the term is used to describe an unexpected turn of events in a story that brings a convenient—and highly unlikely—resolution to a crisis. Deus ex machina differs from a plot twist in that the writer doesn’t leave any clues in the preceding scenes or chapters about the extraordinary outcome. Instead, the change in the hero’s fortunes comes as a complete surprise to the audience.
How to Use Deus Ex Machina
Most readers, theatergoers, and movie fans reject deus ex machina. They see such endings as a last resort for lazy writers who’ve failed to adequately formulate their plot and must therefore come up with a miraculous rescue plan. Audiences don’t mind surprises, but in that “ah!” moment, they want an element of “I should have seen that coming” because the writer has placed subtle clues in the story beforehand.
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Deus ex machina endings can be unsatisfying because they rule out the possibility of finding out how things will resolve. Also, audiences like to see characters work toward a well-deserved happy ending. It’s less satisfying when the hero is rewarded for nothing.
However, all of this doesn’t mean that you should never use deus ex machina to solve your characters’ problems. As we’ll see in some of the examples below, many writers have used this device to illustrate the hopelessness of the human situation— without divine help, all our efforts are pointless. However, deus ex machina can also be used to create an ending that’s so unlikely and ridiculous that it’s comedic.
Examples of Deus Ex Machina
Euripedes’s Medeais one of the earliest examples of the literal use of deus ex machina (i.e., a stage machine that delivered “divine” help.) In this play, the main character escapes punishment for her crimes by riding away in the chariot of Helios, the sun god.
The happy ending to Shakespeare’s As You Like It depends on three instances of deus ex machina: Oliver is saved by his brother Orlando; Frederick suddenly decides not to murder his brother after all; and Hymen shows up to bless all four of the weddings in the final scene.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies would probably never have been published if all the children had died at the end. Golding had to save them somehow, so he had them rescued from their remote Pacific Island by a passing ship.
In H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, all seems lost for mankind when Earth is invaded by powerful Martians. Luckily for humanity, the aliens all drop dead after contracting a simple bacterium.
At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and Marion are tied up while the bad guys escape in the ark. When they open it, they’re all destroyed by the supernatural forces inside. Fortunately, the same forces don’t kill the heroes as well—they just burn through the ropes, allowing Indy and Marion to escape.
Douglas Adams uses deus ex machina to a comedic effect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur and Zaphod are ejected into deep space by the Vogons, but instead of dying in moments from lack of oxygen, they’re rescued by the starship Heart of Gold.
Summary: Is Deus Ex Machina Good or Bad?
This ancient story-telling device is often criticized as evidence of poor plotting and lazy writing. Yet, as we’ve seen, deus ex machina is used in some of the most popular plays, novels, and movies of all time.
For this reason, we don’t think deus ex machina endings should be written off altogether! However, if you’re tempted to introduce an unlikely character or event to save the day at the end of your story, make sure you don’t rob your readers (or viewers) of a more satisfying conclusion. They might never forgive you for it, unless it’s funny, of course.For more writing tips, see our blog. And if you want one of our expert proofreaders to check your grammar, punctuation, and spelling (including Latin terms), our team is always available to help. We’ll even proofread your first 500 words for free.