Episode 74: Deus ex Machina – cheap device or valid resolution?

On December 21, Kasie and Rex took on the cliché solution to a plot problem, the deus ex machina. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Deus Ex Machina

Agenda

  • What is the Deus Ex Machina?
  • Criticisms of this device
  • How to do it right
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Photo by Alexis Azabache on Pexels.com

Segment 1

What is the deus ex machina? According to Wikipedia:

English (‘god from the machine’) is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.

Where did it come from?

The Greeks, of course.

Will we know it when we see it? (give examples of the below)

Link

  • A character waking up and realising it was “all a dream”
  • A hero turning up right just in time to save everyone
  • A sudden discovery of a super power or magical ability that solves all the plot problems
  • A sudden dramatic natural event, such as an earthquake or fire
  • A character who magically returns from the dead

Segment 2

From Bright Hub Education:

The deus ex machina is often criticised for providing a lazy ending to a story. Audiences of Greek theatre were more forgiving of the device, but in modern times it is considered an example of bad writing. It is criticised for providing implausible and unsatisfying endings to stories, and audiences may feel they have been “cheated” when a deus ex machina is introduced at the last minute.

Deus ex machina is considered an easy way out – a way to resolve the story nicely, without putting any effort into writing a plausible and satisfactory ending.

From Wikipedia:

Antiphanes was one of the device’s earliest critics. He believed that the use of the deus ex machina was a sign that the playwright was unable to properly manage the complications of his plot.

Segments 3 & 4

How to use it:

So it’s the “hand of God” or an unexpected intervention that turns things in the direction of the protagonist or the good guys. Examples include:

Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark — so does foreshadowing get you a successful one?

Sword of Godric Gryffindor in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — so many of these in the series, but this one is the most unlikely: a phoenix with magic tears brings the Sorting Hat to Harry in his hour of need and in the hat is the sword of Godric Gryffindor. Harry’s bewildered and we all should be, too.

Bacteria in the War of the Worlds — Martians are kicking our ass, their tech is way better than ours, but we have smallpox blankets so take that! It’s worked before.

King’s letter in Tartuffe — nothing like a well-timed pardon, eh? Just saw this in an episode of Outlander where Jamie is arrested and the Governor of Jamaica happens to be Lord John Gray who is in love with Jamie (but who isn’t in love with Jamie? For real).

The Returning Ship — a shipwreck story has to have this, FYI, it’s genre convention, so we can forgive Lord of the Flies for it, right? Except the environment on the island has reached unsustainable violence before the ship arrives. So there’s that.

Jim’s Freedom in Hucckleberry Finn — so he’d been free the whole time? Whhhhaaaatttt? Yep. Thanks, Tom Sawyer for thinking it’s all a bit of fun and letting us think Jim’s life and freedom was in danger when actually, not so much. Twain apparently thought himself he’d cheated on this one. Just one person knows the truth and the others have been fooled.

The Giant’s Sword in Beowolf — anytime the bad guy keeps the weapon of his own destruction nearby, I think we may be foreshadowing but nonetheless making it too easy for the right circumstances to resolve the thing.

All.The.Such. in Twilight — the centuries-old rules of vampires conveniently evolve in the three years in which Bella Swan is contemplating immortality. They can’t procreate. Except the men can. They have a terrible thirst for human blood. Except not Bella. She’s “choosing” to be good. She’s better than all the vampires who came before her, for sure. Mary Sue much? And Jacob? Her erstwhile suitor she didn’t really want to leave behind? No worries, he loves her daughter who will age fast enough to be with him without it being pedophile-ly and weird. It’s called imprinting. It’s a wolf thing. The rules change.

The fairies. All of them. — so the great thing about fairy stories is that they cannot lie but they can deceive. So clever authors build prophecies into fairy stories and let those prophecies get misconstrued and when the truth occurs, it feels foretold or fated, but really it’s just a cheap parlor trick.

If you’ve ever answered, “Because magic,” to explain something that happened in a book, you might have been tricked by the deus ex machina, too.

So, to review, here are those possible rules:

  • Foreshadow
  • Genre convention
  • One person knows the truth
  • The rules change
  • Because magic/faith.

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