Friday, November 16, 2012

Deux Ex Machina

Gimley, Screech Owl

Over half a lifetime ago I wrote a short story about a guy who had a fantastical quirk that ended up getting him in trouble whenever he was bored.

A friend who read it thought both the quirk and the consequences didn't ring true.  "It seems very Deus Ex Machina" he wrote to me.

It was a phrase I'd never heard before, but it was one that changed my way of thinking about writing.

The literal interpretation is "God from a machine" and comes from early Greek and Roman theater when:
"a mechane would lower a god or gods onstage to resolve a hopeless situation. Thus, "god comes from the machine". The phrase deus ex machina has been extended to refer to any resolution to a story which does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is so unlikely it challenges suspension of disbelief, and presumably allows the author to end it in the way he or she wanted."     (

The conventional interpretation for modern writers is that we should avoid solving problems our characters find themselves in by creating a solution that is too convenient or too coincidental to be believed.  Say you have two kids trapped in a cave.  An earthquake that split that cave wide open would work to get them out, but it would seem mighty well-timed and strains the credibility of the writer.  "God made it happen" might work in Strange But True examples of real life, but coincidences just don't work in fiction.  Characters have to earn their way out of the corners we paint them into.

The most fascinating thing about this, to me, is that the Roman poet Horace wrote about this in his Ars Poetica, saying writers "must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots."  That was over 2000 years ago, meaning writers have been struggling with this problem for about as long as people have been writing fiction!

It's good to know I'm not only not alone in this, but I'm following in the tradition of thousands of years of writers past.

-- Tom