Ah, we’ve all been there. There just wasn’t a good reason why this character did this, or that character did what he did. So you just tie off that story with a cheap twist or unexplained event. You’re not happy with it, and neither are your readers. Maybe you can’t find a way to resolve the story well, so you use a cheesy tactic to eliminate your angst.
I’m talking about Deus ex Machina.
The phrase comes from the Latin, literally, “god from a machine”. It’s an allusion to how Greek plays would have Zeus lowered from the ceiling on cables to magically make this story end well. It’s all-too-obviously a sign of unoriginality and lack of creative thinking, a lot like bad clichés. I like to call it “The Writer’s Cheat”, but poor storytelling by any other name would be just as annoying.
Jokes aside, Deus ex Machina has a HUGE way of trickling into stories of popular culture. I am, to the end, a HUGE fan of Star Wars, but I despise the latter three in “The Skywalker Saga”. Why? Because the sequels are a clear example of The Writer’s Cheat in action. The Force, for example, is used to fill plot holes, by knack of its being so mysterious. Just because there’s something we don’t fully understand doesn’t allow it to save the main characters from utter doom for no reason at all. Finn and Han spend time bickering about “using the Force” when neither of them actually know what it IS or how it works. The Force’s mystery only stays that way because, without it, Disney could never use it to cheat.
This is all too easy. Deus ex Machina always strives to answer the WHY and HOW in storytelling. Only it answers the “why” with a “because”. You have three friends. they decide to set out on a quest. Why? Because! A certain man is trying to get a book published. Why? Because! How is Rey just able to whip a wannabe Sith? Because!
There’s our problem. We answer our motives with bubbles and fantasy. This is probably the most depressing thing to see in storytelling. Another form of Deus ex Machina (Hereafter DEM, I can’t keep typing that out) is the kind when there is a weak reason. If your justification for why the courageous knight is going out on a quest is that he longs for his grandmother’s cookies, you’ve got a case of DEM. Find a better, stronger reason.
So, how to spot a case of DEM? Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s obvious. However, there a surefire way to spot it in any story, especially yours. WHY or HOW is this character doing what she’s doing? WHY or HOW has the villain got to where he is? By asking these questions, and answering them, we see whether or not it’s DEM. If the reason is absent or weak, it must be replaced.
So, maybe you have a case of DEM. How to fix it? My friend, it’s a simple but dreaded task: rewriting. I especially hate rewriting, because I’d like to rest easy knowing that my story is good the way I’ve first written it. But every first draft has issues. The script of the celebrated movie The Matrix was rewritten eighteen times! Every plot hole must be worked out and fixed. You’re cheating yourself and your readers if you can’t tell a logical story.
First you spot the DEM, then you fix it. If the reason behind this is weak, replace it with something stronger. Of course, you’ll have to change the course of your story to be congruent with that, but that’s rewriting for you. Instead of having Rey just be able to beat up on a wannabe Sith, just have her fail and have someone more qualified step up. It’s a simple fix. Above all, don’t be brazen. Don’t hail poor storytelling as immortal.
Be relentless in your pursuit of bad storytelling. Be confident in what you’ve written, but also be open to new ideas. And remember: if the motive behind an act is just kinda okay, you might want to consider replacing that one too. The goal here is excellence, not mediocrity. Your goal is to rise above the crowd and produce something better. Don’t swindle yourself or your readers, and don’t be lazy when it comes to picking your motives.
Good luck, and happy writing!
2 thoughts on “Deus Ex Machina: The Writer’s Bane”
Awesome post! I completely agree with all this; give strong motives to your characters, don’t make the situation seem too obvious or make it the same thing over and over. Don’t fill in the blanks with something that is unexplainable either.
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Loved the references to Rey in there. *cough cough* Definitely not a true Jedi *cough cough*. You also had some really good tips for avoiding plot holes
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