Image: Matthew Loffhagen
By the end of the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, things are looking bad for the protagonist. Corrupted by unearned power and driven to desperation by the antagonist, he jumps from the window of his office, tumbling towards the city streets. There’s nothing he can do to avert his fate, the movie hasn’t set up any way of saving him, and then… time stops.
The hero blinks, unable to understand why he’s suddenly floating in midair, and the camera cuts to a minor character who has jammed the mechanism of the office building’s giant clockface. The character turns to camera and, seemingly speaking to the viewer, says, “Strictly speaking, I’m never supposed to do this. But have you got a better idea?”
This is an example of deus ex machina – the moment in a story when an otherwise intractable situation is solved by the intervention of a person, power, or event that doesn’t have any precedent in the story. Deus ex machina events tend to be viewed with derision by modern readers, who take them as a sign that the author has written themselves into a corner and needs an easy way out.
But here’s the thing; in The Hudsucker Proxy, it totally works. The deus ex machina moment is hilarious and – more importantly – a satisfying solution to the problem at hand. So how can this device that’s almost always a terrible idea sometimes be exactly what a story needs? How can you spot bad deus ex machina moments, and how can you fix them when they don’t work? That’s exactly what I’ll be covering in today’s article.
God from the machine
The concept of deus ex machina arises from ancient Greek theater. The term means ‘god from the machine,’ describing how – when a god appeared on stage to solve all the protagonist’s problems – the actor was either lowered by a crane or rose from under the stage via a trapdoor. This image is part of what’s given the term its long life – the idea of introducing a character in such a strange, extravagant way underlines how out of place deus ex machina moments can be in otherwise well-structured stories.
In ancient theater, deus ex machina moments tended to revolve around gods or royalty; the types of characters who had the power to solve problems with a wave of their hand. Famously, Moliere’s Tartuffe – the story of a conman who uses his host’s moral failings to gradually take over his home – ends with the king hearing about the antagonist’s misdeeds, having him arrested, and undoing all the negative effects of his play-long scheming. By today’s standards, it can seem like an odd conclusion; the protagonist doesn’t earn a happy ending by their own merits, or even by repenting, and the story doesn’t prepare the reader to expect outside intervention. Despite this, the ending can still be presented in a satisfying way – as a last-minute twist that allows for the play to showcase both its moral lesson and Tartuffe’s absorbing schemes.
In modern storytelling, the label of ‘deus ex machina’ is thrown around a little more liberally, generally referring to any resolution that isn’t adequately foreshadowed, and sometimes broadening to cover anything the reader finds unbelievable or unlikely. While it’s interesting to look at how the term has diffused in meaning, we’ll be discussing just the former of these today, as the more specific term is the more mechanically useful.
Spotting a deus ex machina moment
So, a deus ex machina moment is a moment in which a difficult situation is solved by something the reader didn’t see coming? No, not quite.
Different readers read at different levels and in different ways. Some readers are constantly aware of story structure, while others are able to become completely absorbed in a fictional reality. Even the most intelligent of readers may not know where a relatively simple story is going, not because they’re incapable of recognizing narrative patterns or traditions, but just because their style of reading pushes such awareness aside. Because of this, no good guideline can depend on what a reader does notice, only on what they can notice.
A deus ex machina moment is, therefore, a moment in which a difficult situation is solved by something the reader couldn’t have seen coming. The original example is the best, here – the audience has no reason to expect that there are going to be gods in the story or that they might appear on stage, just as a viewer of The Hudsucker Proxy has no reason to think that physically stopping a clock will stop time. Of course, what’s ‘possible’ isn’t a practical consideration as much as a thematic one; lots of things could feasibly occur – not every deus ex machina moment depends on magic – but the way in which a story is told sets the parameters for what the reader should and can expect.
For example, a story might end with a minor character suddenly waking from a coma, grabbing a gun, and shooting the antagonist. Is that technically possible? Yes, close enough. But if the reader hasn’t been given any reason to expect it – no hints that the coma patient might wake up now, no context for why they’d be so alert if they did – then it was functionally outside the bounds of what the story suggested was possible. Because of this, it feels cheap, and while it might logically get you out of an otherwise impossible situation, it doesn’t do so in a way that’s satisfying to the reader.
This logic comes back to the idea of Chekhov’s gun (or Chekhov’s rifle). This is something we’ve covered before, so I’ll be brief. Here, again, we have a dramatic principle whose actual definition has wandered over time. The original concept goes as follows:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.– S. Shchukin quoting Anton Chekhov, Memoirs
Here, the warning is against preparing your audience for something that isn’t going to happen, but in the years since the term was coined, it has also been reversed. Now, the concept of Chekhov’s gun is just as likely to be phrased, ‘If in the second or third chapter a rifle goes off, it absolutely must be hanging on a wall in the first chapter. If it’s going to be fired, it needs to be hanging there.’
The idea here is that if an event comes out of nowhere, the reader will take far less satisfaction from it than if it makes sense in retrospect. The most important part of this is easy to miss, so I’ll say it again: it only needs to make sense in retrospect. The reader doesn’t actually need to see your resolution coming, they don’t even need to fully understand how it all came together, but they do need to get the impression that it’s something you built into the story. To use our ancient theater imagery again, it shouldn’t feel like this is a brand-new development you’re lowering onto stage via a crane.
Fixing a deus ex machina moment
As an example, let’s return to our coma patient. If the other characters simply stumble into their room and have their dispute resolved by the patient’s surprise gunfire, that’s likely to be an unsatisfying deus ex machina moment. Introducing them prior to their gunshots would help, but imagine the following:
In chapter one, the protagonist is visiting a sick relative, but the visit is made harder by security checks at the hospital; an orderly gossips that a high profile patient has been brought in comatose and is receiving priority treatment. In chapter fifteen, as part of introducing the antagonist, it’s mentioned that they’re so deadly that they recently took down the country’s best secret agent. In chapter eighteen, another character is knocked unconscious, and one of the protagonists tries to wake them up by feigning an emergency. It fails, and they sheepishly say that they’d heard familiar voices and adrenaline spikes can help people regain consciousness. In chapter twenty-two, the antagonist chases the protagonists (who have a good reason to be back at the hospital) into the room of the coma patient and disarms them, but is killed when the coma patient wakes up, grabs the gun, and fires off a perfect shot. In chapter twenty-three, the dots are connected for the reader: the coma patient is the secret agent that the antagonist previously hospitalized, was woken by the antagonist’s familiar voice and sense of danger, and was able to make the shot because of their training.
Now, that’s not a perfect story, but by dropping just a few details earlier into the narrative, we’ve turned a deus ex machina moment into a conclusion that might actually feel pretty satisfying to the reader. The reader can look back and see that, while they didn’t guess what was coming, the author clearly knew all along. This works even when they’ve been misled – for example, as we were writing this story, we’d definitely imply that the antagonist had killed the secret agent, even if we didn’t say so outright. The idea isn’t that the reader anticipates the ending, it’s that the ending feels earned in retrospect.
This is how to defuse any deus ex machina moments you’ve noticed in your writing: foreshadowing. If you notice a moment you haven’t earned – that you’re lowering into the story right at the moment it’s needed – then go back and sow the seeds of thematic consistency. Keep in mind that this isn’t a solely logical process.
As a final example, consider a story with no sci-fi elements in which aliens arrive at the end. There are good and bad versions of this idea (or, at least, versions which do and don’t serve the reader.) In the bad version, the story is a regular crime thriller until the last chapter, in which a flying saucer descends. The reader didn’t see it coming, they didn’t think it was possible in this world, and they can’t reconcile it with the story they thought they were reading. In the good version, the story is still a regular crime thriller until the last chapter, but the story is filled with strange, unsettling moments. It’s clear from the tone that something’s off, and so when the aliens finally appear, the reader is shocked on a logical level (they didn’t think this story would have aliens) but satisfied thematically (they did know something weird was going on, and now they know what.)
In this way, sometimes foreshadowing an event in your story isn’t so much about what you tell the reader as it is about how you tell it. And this, in its turn, is the key to recognizing when your story actually needs a deus ex machina moment.
In season 2 of Fargo – created by Noah Hawley but deliberately using plot points and themes from the work of the Coen Brothers – a climactic gun fight between the protagonists and antagonists is interrupted by the arrival of a flying saucer.
While it’s a classic deus ex machina moment, the flying saucer doesn’t actually take a direct hand in the conflict. The characters are distracted, and that results in certain outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, but the saucer appears, hovers for a while, then leaves. Its only function is to interrupt the fight and ‘incapacitate’ several characters via fascination. Apart from an earlier appearance at the start of the series that went much the same way, the UFO has no further relevance – in fact, even the foreshadowing that seemed related to aliens is later explained away. In effect, there’s no practical reason for Hawley to have used a UFO – it would have been just as easy for a gas line to explode, and the reader’s immersion in the story wouldn’t have been challenged in the same way. In fact, Hawley could even have set up the damaged gas line in advance, avoiding a deus ex machina moment entirely. The only conclusion possible is that a deus ex machina moment is exactly what he wanted.
In making this decision, Hawley was addressing a theme consistent across the Coen Brothers’ work, from comedies like The Hudsucker Proxy to dramas like the original Fargo – that whether you see it as divine intervention or cosmic chance, our lives are constantly at the whim of unseen forces. Part of the reason that the time-stop moment in The Hudsucker Proxy works so well is that the whole movie embraces this idea – the protagonist was both raised up and brought low by a confluence of circumstances he didn’t cause or understand, so it makes sense that he’d be saved from his fate in the same way.
Not everyone likes this kind of story, but it’s a narrative viewpoint that’s entirely valid and for which there’s definitely an audience. The Coen Brothers tend to tell stories about how we react to and perceive events we couldn’t foresee, so it often works to present the reader with the same kind of situation. That said, this isn’t a simple process, and the Coen Brothers are incredibly skillful at creating a tone in which such events feel justified to the reader.
Another way in which deus ex machina moments can be effective is when the intervention doesn’t matter to the overall story. As a general rule, the more important a deus ex machina moment is – that is, the higher the stakes of the situation it resolves – the more readers will hate it. If your character is locked in a storeroom and gets let out by someone who returned to fetch their coat, the reader is likely to be, at worst, only mildly irritated by the low effort resolution. If your character is locked in a storeroom during a fire, the same kind of convenience won’t fly.
This is part of why Tartuffe’s ending can be framed as a satisfying conclusion – if it’s the story of an antagonist tricking a family out of their possessions, then you’d expect a resolution that’s relevant to that scheming, but if it’s a morality tale about not trusting people just because they parrot your views back at you, then the point is to see the protagonist brought low. Once the lesson’s been taught, the resolution is just there to cap things off, so better to keep it short and sweet.
Certain genres make deus ex machina moments more tolerable. For example, bizarro fiction moves so quickly and introduces so many ideas that readers are primed to roll with the unexpected. And, of course, if your writing explicitly accounts for a divine presence, their intervention is going to feel a lot more natural.
Finally, you can use a deus ex machina moment to underline what would have happened otherwise. In Lord of the Flies, a passing ship rescues the children at a crucial moment, but this ending only serves to emphasize the terrible deeds they would otherwise have committed.
Avoiding the trap door
Deus ex machina moments tend to irritate readers, but the good news is that a little foreshadowing can turn them into satisfying resolutions to creative problems (even if you add that foreshadowing in a later draft.) Remember to justify your resolutions tonally as well as logically – in most cases, it’s actually more important that a moment ‘feels’ earned than that it makes perfect sense with what came before.
It’s common for early drafts to contain deus ex machina moments, mostly because it’s easier to cause problems for your characters than to resolve them. If you find these moments, don’t despair; this is exactly what editing’s for, and knowing both the problem and the solution you want is most of the battle – now you just need to set that solution up.
Of course, there are also those stories that are improved by a god from the machine, usually those where unpredictability is tonally appropriate, or where the logical resolution of a situation isn’t where you intend the reader’s focus to fall.
Have you solved any deus ex machina moments in your writing or do you prefer to embrace the unexpected? Let me know in the comments, and check out Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb, How To Use Foreshadowing With Confidence, and Are You In Danger Of Losing Your Readers’ Suspension Of Disbelief? for more great advice on this topic.