Narrative Writing


Deus Ex Machina

Deus ex machina is a term which comes from Greek theater. In those ancient times, many plays ended with a god or goddess being lowered onto the stage by means of a "machine". The god would then solve all the problems of the characters in the play. The literal meaning of the phrase deus ex machina is "God from the machine."





Professional writers have a term they use for endings that are based on "dumb luck." The phrase is deus ex machina. This Latin phrase has a long history, but the basic meaning is this: "God intervened to save the hero."

Good writers try hard to avoid deus ex machina endings.

A winning lottery ticket is one example of a deus ex machina ending. Here is another example:

Erica, our hero, is fighting a gargantuan Viking warrior called Gondor. They are fighting outside, under a clear blue sky. Gondor clearly has the upper hand. After knocking Erica to the ground, Gondor lifts his ax. He's poised there, blade lifted high, ready to separate Erica's head from her shoulders. Just then, a bolt of lightning strikes Gondor and kills him. Erica is saved.

Clearly, that's a deus ex machina ending.

Can it be rewritten in such a way that it doesn't seem so contrived?

Maybe. If you foreshadow the storm, describe the approach of the roiling thunder clouds, and then have Erica purposely take the fight outside, knowing that Gondor's towering stature and the metal blade of his ax might attract lighting . . . perhaps you could make that ending a bit more palatable.

Better yet . . . keep the fight inside. As Erica and Gondor fight, crashing against the walls and beams of the Viking longhouse, you focus the reader's attention on a heavy pot that is hanging from one of the rafters. The shaking of the beams has caused the pot to wiggle loose from its hook, and now it's one good jolt away from falling.

At the critical moment, as Gondor stands triumphantly, ax held high, Erica kicks the beam, dislodging the pot, and the pot comes crashing down on Gondor's head. Gondor falls unconscious to the floor.

That ending also depends on luck. It was Erica's luck, more than her skill, that enabled her to win that fight. And yet, that ending is far more satisfying, because Erica's win is a result of her own efforts. It's certainly more satisfying than a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.

Key Points:

We have now studied three things that can ruin a good ending:

In coming lessons, we'll take a look at some ways to make an ending work.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.