D is for deus ex machina

Sin #3: Writer cop out!

Even if you don’t know what the term deus ex machina means, I can still guarantee you’ve come across this technique in a book or film many times in your lifetime.

Deus ex machina translates literally as god from the machine and refers to a plot device in which a god would pop up at the end of a complicated play and resolve everything in one convenient swish of his god wand…or whatever gods use nowadays to get the job done.

A ‘very’ convincing god swoops in to save the day 

It’s a way of pissing all over the reader by building the tension and excitement in a story due to many complications, having the reader on the edge of their seat screaming “how is he going to get out this!!?” and then having a magical eagle pop in and save the day – or something equally as stupid.

I use the eagle example only to highlight the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that had me cringing and laughing simultaneously. I am of course referring to the films, having never read the books I can’t say for sure this is any less cheesy in the novels. If you haven’t seen or read LOTR (then well done you!!) the massively long trilogy revolves around the central plot of destroying a magic ring. Basically if the bad guy gets his hands on it…bye bye world. Now the story is full of twists and turns, excitement and tension, a billion subplots, yadda yadda yadda…BUT at the end of the trilogy (800 hours out of your life you’ll never get back) they chuck the ring into a volcano (the only thing powerful enough to destroy it) and the volcano goes kerblooey! Tension, tension, oh noes! MC going to die…THEN or to use another writing trope…SUDDENLY giant eagles fly in and have the MC back to his homeland in a few shakes of a tail feather. The same homeland it took him 800 hours to travel from.


Apart from the fact it’s a bit of a cop out, why didn’t the feckin’ eagles just fly them there in the first place??

It would have been much more entertaining if these bad boys flew in to save the day!

Ok, ok, this is probably a bad example to use because I can almost guarantee five minutes after posting this someone will pop up and say “actually, I think you’ll find that in the books *snort*…”

But either way you get the idea, deus ex machina, while not technically cheating is just plain lazy! And completely unfair to your reader who has invested so much time reading the rest of your book. A proper ending goes hand in hand with Sin#2: No conflict!, if a fairy godmother pops up at the end and says “hang on a jiffy, I’ll sort out all this shizzle for you, you go chill out and have a fish finger sandwich”, then there is no conflict!!

Which is bad.

This quote from ‘How NOT to Write a Novel’ by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman sums up my thoughts on using a deus ex machina:

“This particular blunder is known as deus ex machina, which is French for ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”

I seem to have painted myself in a corner in regards to ending this post…now where’s that magical elf that I haven’t referred to anywhere in the post? I bet he can pull a suitable ending out of his magical bottom!


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    • Jayne on April 5, 2011 at 10:56
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    Oh this had me laughing – especially the 'french translation' and the magical elf pic! I do love the LOTR books, but must admit having the same thought about the eagles – surely they could have saved everyone A LOT of trouble.

    Have highlighted your post as one of my A-Z highlights today! 🙂

    • Steven Chapman on April 5, 2011 at 11:20
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    Thanks, Jayne! I'm heading on over to check out your blog now. I'm having such a hard time keeping up with all these other A-Zers!

    • Patsy on April 5, 2011 at 13:36
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    Yeah, it's bad to do this – and we don't need to. If, at the end of the first draft, this is what we've done, we can add the magic eagle in from the beginning.

    • Sue H on April 5, 2011 at 14:38
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    ….eagles? Did I miss something when I watched the films? …..oh, that's right – I was having trouble logging the million-and-one other characters and what they were getting up to…..must have dozed off and missed the blasted eagles! 😉

    BTW Steven – which came first – your final quote or the cartoon? (I have visions of you writing the quote then spending hours trawling Google images for a rude elf ;-p)

    • CharmedLassie on April 5, 2011 at 15:38
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    I'm reading too much Victorian fiction lately, because these ideas are second-nature to me at the moment. In one book I've finished recently a woman was disinherited BUT it's okay because her husband, whom she married for love and not fortune, happens to be the new heir… Great cop-out, Edmund Yates!

    • Steven Chapman on April 5, 2011 at 15:47
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    Your vision was correct, Sue 😛

    The final quote came first…it was surprisingly easy to find a magical elf's bottom!

    • Giggle, Laugh, Cry on April 5, 2011 at 17:40
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    I stopped by as part of the A-Z Challenge!

    • Karen Walker on April 5, 2011 at 18:10
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    Hi from the a-z challenge. This post took me right back to school and my Creative Writing courses. Thanks for the reminder.

    • ttofee on April 5, 2011 at 19:54
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    I admit I had to search for the translation but I have come across this so many times! Lets hope we never commit this sin!
    Must get on with my own post for D …

    • Áine Tierney on April 6, 2011 at 12:06
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    Good tips. I read that 'How not to write a novel' and liked it only well enough.
    Best of luck with the A-Z challenge

    • Shelli on April 6, 2011 at 18:26
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    Great post. I never liked LOTR. I read the books, but never saw the movie. After reading Orson Scott Card's book on Characters, I realized that it was because LOTR is a milieu story, and I don't like milieu stories. It's all about creating the world, and the plot and characters are simply vehicles for exploring the world. Not my cup of tea.

    • Steven Chapman on April 7, 2011 at 09:49
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    Bloody eagles *shakes fist*

    I have to admit I was expecting a lot of LOTR fans to hunt me down and beat me with their Frodo cushy dolls…that's the kind of thing they do, you know!

    • Armand Cordero on April 7, 2011 at 20:25
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    I'm a big LOTR stan and I'm mega p/o'd ! Nah just kidding, good to know what deus ex machina means. But I swear today loads of stories in books films animations end up this way. Sure it doesn't make sense in most cases, I guess it can be a cop out. But sometimes it can work, you know, if its relevant… I'm probably not making any sense and now cannot end this. END

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