Blindside Your Readers With Deus Ex Machina

by Liz Bureman | 33 comments

Let's say that you and your friends are watching a spy film. The hero is in restraints and staring down the business end of a laser gun that is threatening to fry off his face. The plucky sidekick is trapped in the middle of  a nearby lake, and the spy headquarters has no idea that the hero is even in Abu Dhabi because he was supposed to be in Bucharest, but got sidetracked by a lady.

It sure looks like the end for our hero. All of a sudden, a bright light beams down onto our hero, and he disappears, only to rematerialize on Mars. A man in white walks up to him, and says, “Welcome to the space headquarters of the Alliance's spy network.”

Wait a minute. No one mentioned anything about the Alliance having a space headquarters. The entirety of this plot has been about kidnapping a biological engineer. There hasn't been any mention of anything outside the Earth's atmosphere in any context whatsoever. What just happened?

You've been blindsided by a deus ex machina.

Deus Ex Machina

Photo by Amanda M Hatfield

Deus ex machina is another fun Latin term that means “god from the machine,” and it refers to a plot snarl that is suddenly solved by the unexplained intervention of a completely new character or event. The phrase actually has its roots in Greek drama, where a crane would physically lower actors playing the gods onto the stage, usually to sweep up some mess the characters had gotten into.

There are a few requirements for a plot development to qualify as a deus ex machina.

A deus ex machina is a solution. It's not enough to simply be a plot twist or sudden development; the deus ex machina solves a problem.

A deus ex machina is also sudden. If the aforementioned Alliance space headquarters had been previously referenced, even in passing, then the rescue would not qualify as a deus ex machina.

Finally, a deus ex machina must fix an unsolvable problem. If there is a chance that common sense or ingenuity could solve the problem, then whatever solution swoops in is not a deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina tends to be frowned upon in the writing world, but it can be implemented well. It's found all over Shakespeare's works (especially the comedies), and, as mentioned above, it's also in ancient Greek dramas. If nothing else, it's been great for works of parody and comedy (see practically anything Monty Python or Mel Brooks has ever done).

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes, putting your main character in a seemingly inescapable dilemma, and then pull out a deus ex machina to get them out. Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

33 Comments

  1. Jack Dowden

    Martin prepared to die. The cartel had hunted him, killed
    his friends and family, stolen all his money, and bombed his home.

    He’d known he shouldn’t have crossed them. Yet, the
    pleadings of a beautiful woman do things to a man’s logic. Namely, destroy it.

    She had died in his apartment’s blast. Martin had run. He’d
    crossed back and forth over the border a half dozen times, hoping to throw them
    off. It hadn’t worked.

    Did I ever really want
    to escape? Everything he’d known was gone. Martin was so tired.

    “Ready to die?” Someone asked him. Martin shrugged.

    The cartel had found him in El Paso, and made a public
    showing of breaking his legs. Afterwards, they’d dragged him away from American
    authorities into Mexico, and set him inside a shed that smelled of piss, blood,
    and feces. Martin had often hoped to die in a bed, surrounded by his
    non-existent children and grandchildren. Oh
    well.

    He heard the sound of a pistol being cocked. All he could
    think on were those people he’d let down. It was his fault they were dead. The
    cartel had pulled the triggers, but Martin had pointed the guns.

    Martin shut his eyes. He didn’t want the last thing he saw to
    be their smiling faces or the stained shed walls. “God,” he began.

    “Yes?”

    His eyes opened and time had frozen. The cartel goons stood
    around him. One had a gun aimed at Martin’s head. They didn’t move. They didn’t
    even breathe. Then Martin noticed the dude in the white robe standing in the
    center of the room.

    “What’s up?” God asked. Martin didn’t say anything. He
    couldn’t. “Oh, c’mon! Don’t be like that dude! You’re always so down on
    yourself.”

    “God?”

    God made a face. “Duh.”

    “Are you here to take my soul?”

    “Nope, I’m here to save your ass! Check this out!” Then God
    shot a bunch of lightning and lava and other cool shit out of his fingers and
    the cartel guys exploded. Time resumed.

    “Wh-”

    “Also,” God said. He snapped his fingers. “I just erased the
    entire cartel’s memory. No one will remember you.”

    “Wow,” Martin said. “That sure is swell.”

    “You bet it is!”

    Then they high fived.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      I officially win bad Christian of the day. When the deus ex machina arrived, I named him Chuck Norris in my head… God definitely makes a better rescuer.

    • Jack Dowden

      Thank you for all of your replies! I’m glad people can appreciate a good high five from God.

    • Joe Bunting

      Haha. This is awesome, Jack.

    • Karl Tobar

       Sweet.  I imagine God speaks to everyone in their own vernacular.  xD  Nice work

    • Kate Hewson

      Made me laugh! Especially the high fiving…

    • Marianne

       Well who better to step in and change the story? That was good.  Thanks.

  2. Jeff Ellis

    I can hear the moan of the undead in the house below. When the others and I were chased up here we destroyed the stairs and barricaded the stairway. It will keep the walkers at bay long enough for me to starve. 

    The first night was horrible. Jim moaning so loud it stirred the dead into a frenzy. The entire night howled until we threw Jim from the window, into the throng that flooded the yard. He seemed happy at the end. Content.

    Everything went south after that. Arguing became fighting became murder. We were hungry and thirsty and there wasn’t enough of anything for everyone. I told them none of it mattered, that weren’t getting out alive. Maria actually had the gall to bring up cannibalism. They killed her first. Bob took a bat to her head and we wrestled him out the window. Maria’s corpse followed.

    After that, it was just Steve, Jody, and I. Steve couldn’t keep quiet. He knew that I had told everyone Allen was dead, when he wasn’t. Back at the gas station, I just…I couldn’t take it anymore. Every time I tried to do something good, Allen was there to dog me about it. 

    “We are not leaving,” became his mantra. 

    When the walkers got the jump on us, I used it as an excuse to shuffle everyone out, leaving Allen to deal with them on his own. I can hear him screaming in the night. Or maybe that’s Steve. The pack outside is still chewing on him. 

    Jody went out the window first. She actually stabbed me. I hadn’t meant to, but I shoved her into open air and watched her fall. The ground caught her and put her out before the dead could tear into her. A small mercy. I always liked Jody. 

    It was just a matter of stepping to the side and Steve followed her. He though I didn’t hear him. How could I not, when he was charging full-bore across weak wood? A side-step, the hook of my foot, and he was zombie chow. Down in the yard, his throat surrenders to the silence of the apocalypse. 

    I suspect that in time I’ll throw myself out the window. To be done with the crippling pain in my stomach where Jody stabbed me. The moaning of the horde is almost therapeutic. A low hum, like the rumble of a car. It becomes a cacophony of staccato gunshots. 

    From where I sit with my legs slung out the window, taunting the hungry dead, I watch five military jeeps cut through the wooden fence of the yard, spraying the horde with bullets. It’s beautiful. 

    A steel ladder clacks against the wall beside me and a muscly-armed soldier climbs up it.

    “That wound looks serious. We’ll need to treat it immediately,” he says. “Medic!” 

    More men climb into the room over time, checking the place with survivors’ efficiency. When they have the all-clear, they administer first-aid. I’m saved. I don’t have to go out the windows, I can go down the ladder. I don’t have to die. 

    Reply
    • Kate Hewson

      Nice one! I had to laugh that Mary suggested cannibalism and they ate her first!

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks Kate, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • Marianne

       That is going to give me nightmares.   You really set a great scene there with lots of blood and gore.  I really learned to hate your protagonist in the few minutes it took me to read that. I wish he had slipped and fallen out of the window.  It’s good writing when you can get a reader to feel that much disgust in that short amount of time.  It was funny at the same time.  I really am glad I stopped to read that this morning.

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks so much Marianne. I’m glad that I was able to connect you to the piece in so short a time and that it, well, I’m not sure if “brightened” is the right word, but that it improved your morning in any way, haha.

    • Juliana Austen

      Zombies! I have never managed to watch a zombie movie but after reading this I think I need to!

    • Jeff Ellis

      If you are looking for a zombie experience with actual depth, I recommend you watch AMC’s The Walking Dead (or if you’re into comic books, read the series the show is based on). 

      The show does an amazing job of looking into the psychological issues that would affect people surviving in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than using it as a cheesy backdrop for a horror flick, The Walking Dead treats the end of the world as a legitimate theater for the monsters living inside all of us. You learn to fear the living, much more than the dead. 

      It’s currently my favorite show on television and you can watch the first two season on Netflix right now!
      Aaaand…fan-rant over, haha. Thanks for reading Juliana! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  3. Karl Tobar

                    The fire was growing weaker; the flames barely danced as
    they diminished on top of the gray ash. 
    I needed more wood.  Sighing, I
    stood.

                    I
    wrapped myself in every blanket, every garment of clothing, and every scarf I
    could find.  Tying off my scarf, I looked
    out the window.  The full moon glowed in a
    pale, silvery aura that lit the snow-covered terrain.  I took a deep breath.  I didn’t know if the wolves were still there,
    but I couldn’t risk freezing to death.  I
    needed to get more wood. 

                    I
    took the poker from the fire-place.  If
    they were still out there, I wasn’t going down without a fight.  I took a deep breath and opened the cabin’s
    front door.

                    An
    eerie silence greeted me as I walked onto the front steps.  No whistle of a breeze, not a single sound to
    be heard.   Jagged shadows of old trees
    cast themselves on the white ground in front of me.  I cautiously made my way across the yard, to
    the wood pile on the other side of the property.

                    My
    feet crunched in the snow.  Light, tiny
    snowflakes fell all around.  White specks
    appeared in my eyes as the flakes stuck to my eyelashes.  I blinked them away and continued
    forward.  I could barely see the
    footprints from my last trip to the woodpile; they were almost completely full
    of brand new snow.  My feet crunched as I
    tried to walk in the old prints.  I heard
    snow crunching from across the yard.  It came
    from feet other than my own.

                    I
    stopped in my tracks and turned my head toward the clearing.  A wide open field of nothing but snow met my
    eyes.  A small figure walked toward me,
    slowly coming into view.  I began to see
    the details of the animal: its gray fur, its fluffy tail, I could even see the
    moon reflecting off of two, shiny eyes. 
    The wolves had not left. 

                    The
    beautiful creature was joined by another, then another.  They stopped in their tracks a good twenty
    yards away from me.  I tightened my grip
    on the poker.  I stared them down, and
    they stared me down.  I heard a sharp
    growl, a menacing snarl that seemed to be much closer than they were.

                    I
    spun around to see a wolf mere feet from where I was standing.  It bore its sharp teeth and snarled at me
    some more.  I felt my stomach turn.  I felt my knees weaken.  A rapid crunching of feet on snow met my ears
    from behind me.  I knew they were running
    at me.  I stuck out my poker to stab as
    many as I could, if only one, when I heard it. 
    Music playing… it was some kind of instrument, a stringed
    instrument?  It sounded like a harp.  The animal in front of me that, only moments
    ago, wanted me in its mouth, was staring at the sky.  Its mouth had closed and its eyes relaxed.

                    I
    spun around again to see the three wolves staring at the sky.  The harp echoed into the snowy night.  I myself was almost entranced with the soft
    strumming.  I followed the wolves’ gaze
    toward the sky and what I saw made my heart stop.

                    A
    woman made of light floated in the sky. 
    She glowed; she radiated a brilliant gold aura that contrasted the night
    sky.  Her eyes were closed and she looked
    at peace with her instrument. 

                    I
    noticed that the wolves had lain down in the snow, their eyes growing
    sleepy.  I also notice my mouth had
    dropped open.  Not wanting to embarrass myself
    in front of, er, whoever this was, I close it. 
    The woman lowered herself down onto the ground.  She stopped strumming the harp and held a
    single finger up to her lips.

                    The
    harp disappeared with a flash.  She
    walked over to each wolf, bent down, and touched it on the nose.  I heard them breathing heavily, almost
    snoring.

                    “Um…”
    I started.

                    “Hello,”
    she said to me.  “I see you’ve met my
    guardians.”

                    “Your,
    um, excuse me.  Your what?”

                    “I
    am Elaina, Protector of the Pines.  And
    you’re on sacred ground.  I can sense the
    good inside of you.  That’s why I laid
    them down to rest.  I must ask you to
    leave, though.  Complete the task you are
    here for as quickly as possible, and go. 
    Do not return to this place.  You
    have one hour.”

     

    Author’s Note –
    Okay I cheated.  I wrote for 20
    minutes.  I don’t know where this is
    going or where it came from. 

     

    Reply
  4. Karl Tobar

    I wasn’t sure if the wolves had left.  All I knew was that the fire was growing weaker; the flames barely danced as they diminished on top of the gray ash.  I needed more wood.  Sighing, I stood.

    I wrapped myself in every blanket, every garment of clothing, and every scarf I could find.  Tying off my scarf, I looked out the window.  The full moon glowed in a pale, silver aura the lit the snow-covered terrain.  I took a deep breath.  I didn’t want to go outside, but I couldn’t risk freezing to death in here.  I needed to get more wood.

    I took the poker from the fireplace.  If they were still out there, I wasn’t going down without a fight.  I took a deep breath and opened the cabin’s front door.

    An eerie silence greeted me as I walked onto the front steps.  No whistle of a breeze, not a single sound to be heard.  Jagged shadows of old trees cast themselves on the white ground in front of me.  I cautiously made my way across the yard, to the wood pile on the other side of the property.

    My feet crunched in the snow.  Light, tiny snowflakes fell all around.  White specks appeared in my eyes as the flakes stuck to my eyelashes.  I blinked them away and continued forward.  I could barely see the footprints from my last trip to the woodpile; they were almost completely full of brand new snow.  My feet crunched as I tried to walk in my old foot prints.  I heard more snow crunching from across the yard.  It came from feet other than my own.

    I stopped in my tracks and turned my head toward  the clearing.  A wide open field of white snow met my eyes.  A small figure walked toward me, slowly coming into view.  I began to see the details of the animal: its gray fur, its fluffy tail, I could even see the moon reflecting off of two shiny eyes.  The wolves had not left.

    The beautiful creature was joined by another, then another.  The stopped in their tracks a good twenty yards away from me.  I tightened my grip on the poker.  I stared them down, and they stared me down.  I heard a sharp growl, a menacing snarl that seemed to be much closer than they were.

    I spun around to see a wolf mere feet from where I was standing.  It bore its sharp teeth and snarled at me some more.  I felt my stomach turn.  I felt my knees weaken.  A rapid crunching of feet on snow met my ears from behind me.  I knew they were running at me.  I stuck out my poker to stab as many as I could, if only one, when I heard it.  Music playing… it was some kind of instrument… a stringed instrument.  It sounded like a harp.  The animal in front of me that, only moments ago wanted to eat me, was staring at the sky.  Its mouth had closed and its eyes relaxed.

    I spun around again to see the three wolves staring at the sky.  The harp echoed into the snowy night.  I myself was almost entranced with the soft strumming.  I followed the wolves’ gaze toward the sky and what I saw made my heart stop.

    A woman made of light floated in the sky.  She glowed; she radiated a brilliant gold aura that contrasted the night sky.  Her eyes were closed and she looked at peace while she plucked the golden harp strings.

    I noticed that the wolves had lain down in the snow, their eyes growing sleepy.  I also noticed my mouth had dropped open.  Not wanting to embarrass myself in front of her, I closed it quickly.  The woman lowered herself down onto the ground.  She stopped strumming the harp and looked me in the eye.  She held a single finger up to her lips.

    The harp disappeared with a bright flash.  She walked over to each wolf, bent down, and touched it on the nose.  I heard them breathing heavily, almost snoring.

    “Um…” I started.

    “Hello,” she said to me.  “I see you’ve met my guardians.”

    “Your um, excuse me.  Your what?”

    “I am Elaina, protector of this land.  You’re on sacred ground.  I can sense the good inside of you, that is why I stopped my guardians from ripping you apart.  I must ask you to leave though.  Complete whatever task has brought you here and go at once.  You have one hour.””

    Authors note: Okay, I cheated.  I wrote for over 20 minutes.  I don’t know where this story is going, or where it came from.  :]

    Reply
    • Jeff Ellis

      Great practice, Karl! I really loved the description of the wolves surrounding your protagonist. 

    • Mirelba

       Don’t know if I can tell you where it came from or where it should go, but you should definitely go on with it!  Such beautiful writing!  Go, Karl, go!

    • Kate Hewson

      Yeah, this is awesome! I love the feel of it – the coldness of the snow, and the menacing eyes of the wolves, and then all of a sudden a vision of light and loveliness. It’s great! I agree you should try and makes something out of it!

    • Marianne

       Karl – I’m glad you finished it.  Your description of the winter landscape and the wolves was excellent, and then the angle type being showed up and it became even more beautiful.  This could definitely be the beginning of a longer piece. Thanks.  I’ve had a lot of fun reading this morning. 

    • Juliana Austen

      Loved the portrayal of the cold and the wolves their beauty and their menace. Great stuff.

  5. BernardT

    If only I hadn’t left my phone charger at home.

    We’re all so dependent on the damned things now. With one in
    your hand, you can phone anyone in the world, you can find out where you are to
    within a few metres, and you can look up any piece of information you could
    possibly want. But not if the battery is flat.

    So there I was, in a city that I don’t know, without a
    working phone in my pocket. I needed some air, and I needed to eat, and I
    wanted to get away from the pretentious glow of the hotel. All I did was to
    step out of the front door, and turn the wrong way.

    At first, you feel like an explorer. Seeing a country you
    don’t know, unfamiliar architecture, people dressed in strange clothes. It’s
    all good. And so I wandered further and further from the safety of the bright
    lights, away from anywhere that might be under the gaze of a CCTV camera, off
    the beaten track.

    The streets were laid out in a pattern that seemed designed
    to confuse. Gentle curves and odd angles, so that after a little while you’ve
    no idea which way you are heading. Heavy clouds overhead precluded any recourse
    to navigation by stars or moon – not that I would have been much good at that
    anyway.  As the night wore on, hunger
    became the least of my problems.  The
    streets became narrower, and darker.

    At one point I decided to just turn around and try to
    retrace my steps, but it was no use. I came to a deserted square that I’d
    definitely not been to before, and was faced with six or seven exits, none of
    which looked very likely as routes to salvation.

    I picked one, and walked down it. It became even narrower,
    until it was no more than an alleyway – I could have reached out and touched
    both sides at once, if I’d had the nerve to actually touch anything.

    Then I heard the footsteps. Just one pair at first, then
    two. Or three.

    I walked on more quickly, not knowing where I was going or
    why. The footsteps behind picked up the pace as well, getting closer and closer
    as I strode on into the dark. The alley that I was in suddenly turned to the
    right: I followed it, having no choice in the matter, and my heart sank.

    It was a dead end.

    The buildings on either side were dark and looked like they
    hadn’t seen a living soul in decades. The few windows were shuttered and
    barred, covered in the grime of decades of neglect and decay. Ahead was a high
    brick wall, completely featureless and with no holds that would support any
    kind of climbing.

    I turned around to face the footsteps. I was wrong, it wasn’t
    three: there were four of them, tall and well built, with hoods  concealing their features. Two of them had large
    sticks in their hands: the other two didn’t look like they needed any
    mechanical assistance.

    One spoke, in guttural and heavily accented English.

    “You’re going to die. Say your prayers now, pig.”

    They all stepped slowly forward, in a line abreast,
    completely blocking the alley and the only exit. I edged backwards, slowly,
    until I felt the rough face of the wall pressing against my hands, behind me.

    One more step forward for them: a millimetre further back
    for me, as I pushed harder against the wall.

    At which point a doorway sprang open, and I tumbled into the
    lobby of the hotel I’d left hours earlier.

     

    Reply
    • Karl Tobar

       Nice work!

    • Jack Dowden

      Very interesting!

  6. Mirelba

    Tried to bring in the deus ex machina without turning it into a farce or comedy.  I guess that basically leaves us with the mystical or the magical- or am I wrong?  Anyway, this is what I came up with:

    Meira raced across the grassy plain, her long brown hair
    streaming behind her.  Gasping for
    breath, she turned her head round, only to see the enraged townspeople still chasing
    after her, clubs and cudgels in hand.  They seemed to be gaining on her. She could hear
    their yells and curses above her rasping breath.  She looked around seeking some place to hide,
    but all she could see were three old trees off to her left.  None of the trees seemed to offer footholds
    or much place to hide, but it did not appear as if she had much choice.  She headed towards the trees, once again
    glancing behind her, to see the townspeople gaining on her.  Their voices grew increasingly louder as the
    distance between them lessened.  She
    could already make out the faces of those in the lead.  She gave another burst of speed, desperately
    heaving, her sides aching. 

     

    She suddenly thought she discerned a voice she recognized
    among all the yelling behind her.  It
    sounded like Guy.  Could it be?  She turned for one more look, only to see the
    crowd almost upon her.  Then she stumbled
    upon a small rock she hadn’t seen in front of her, and the crowd was upon her.

     

    Meira came to in a sea of green.  Where could she be?  As her eyes cleared, she could see that she
    was high in one of the trees she had seen before.  There were leaves all around her.  She was confused.  She had no memory of reaching the trees.  One minute she had been falling, in the next
    she’d been on the ground surrounded by the angry men.  She could still feel the sores where the
    first cudgels had hit her.  Where were
    the townspeople?  She looked down where
    she could see the remains of the angry mob lying inert on the grassy
    plain.  What had happened to them?

     

    Reply
    • Karl Tobar

       Ahh what happened?! 

    • Mirelba

      I know that according to the definition of deus ex machina, it doesn’t have to be a god that’s introduced: any artificial or improbably device that extricates someone from a plot difficulty qualifies as such. So I’m testing it out. If there is a problem, and suddenly the problem is resolved even if we’re not quite sure of the how, is it still deus ex machina?

      As for the resolution, I wasn’t quite sure if it would turn out to be a power within her, or an outside force that was responsible for what happened, or if that would make a difference to the “deus ex machina” issue. Any insights, Liz?

    • Karl Tobar

      It does meet the qualifications of deus ex machina.  It solved the problem in a manner that ingenuity and common sense could not, and it was sudden.  When I said “what happened” I meant it in an “OMG how did she get up there?!” sort of way.  😉

    • Mirelba

       that’s ok, I was just really trying to explore the definition, waiting for an deus ex machina answer to my questions, and see?  You supplied it 🙂

    • Marianne

       The interesting thing about this is that it’s like a dream with no clear intervention that saves her, but the feeling in a dream like that is usually of more dread, like the townspeople would still be after her, but here you have another feeling entirely when she’s in the tree, like she has been victorious somehow.  I love your description.  This was like a beautiful watercolor even though it was about a horrible situation. 

    • Mirelba

      Thanks. And that leads me to another point I was wondering about. If you have a whole incredible plot, and then it turns out that the whole thing was but a dream, is that too deus ex machina (which I finally know how to pronounce now that I looked it up online!)?

    • Karl Tobar

       Haha!  I did the same thing.  Thank you, Merriam-Webster!

  7. Juliana Austen

    He squeezed his body
    through the opening; the hard rock walls of the cave were unyielding, cold. His
    other attempts had failed this was his last chance. They were out there, but
    they would not find him, not if he could get through. His shoulders stuck, he twisted,
    held his breath, braced his feet against the wall and pushed. Slowly he was able
    to inch through the opening. It was as he hoped, a cavern, he could sense the
    height above him and around him. He could hear a stream gurgling and rushing
    somewhere in the dark. Water would be good but he would have to be careful not
    to fall in.

    There was sudden
    blinding light flooding all around him. He shielded his eyes. And found himself
    lifted high above the hard stone.

    “A brilliant specimen!”
    boomed a voice.

    “He is isn’t he? I
    particularly like the colouring – white with red hair.”

    “Very unusual!”

    “I’m going to breed
    him”

    “That’s a bit
    ambitious Digby! Its never been done successfully.”

    “I know but I have
    faith in my enrichment programme – see how healthy he is.”

    Reply

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