Deus ex Machina

Maybe this is why it takes me so long to finish projects.

2 posts ago, I indicated that I would be working towards finishing up The Masks of Our Fathers.  I was quite excited to be delving back into that very dark psychological book.  But then, a project that has become something of a bully to me reared its ugly head.

Broken Skies is begging me to finish it.  And what I mean by this is that I was basically slapped in the face with the perfect ending to it.  It’s been there all along and I don’t know how I missed it.  It ties everything together perfectly and some of the plot devices I use along the course of the story seemed to know this ending was coming before I even did.

Here’s the problem…well, not a problem bot more like a scruple. The ending, no matter how well it works, is going to fall into deus ex machina territory.  I have mixed feelings on this.  Sometimes I think this works for novels, other times not so much.  (On a not quite unrelated note, I really fear that Lost is going to end up using deus ex machina to end the series).

I think this tool (for lack of a better word) has the potential to be genius in certain books or movies or TV shows.  But then there are times where they make me feel as if the writer was just being really lazy.  So I am going to start from the top, reading through and editing Broken Skies before adding the new and improved ending, to make sure I am not cheating myself and any potential readers.

What are YOUR thoughts on using deus ex machina in novel writing?  Do you accept it when you see it in literature and/or movies or does it irritate you?

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11 comments

  1. If the shoe fits. . .

    Actually it bothers me far less in books (I have more background usually) than it does in movies and tv (almost always seems like they are just wanting it to come to a tidy end).

  2. I’ve got mixed feelings too. For the most part, I think the ending should spring from the characters of the conflicts that have been building throughout the story, but there are times when machinae work thematically if not dramatically. Like the germs in War of the Worlds? It’s not the world’s most exciting ending, but it’s satisfying and resonant.

    I can forgive just about any ending that is not All A Dream.

  3. I think this tool (for lack of a better word) has the potential to be genius in certain books or movies or TV shows. But then there are times where they make me feel as if the writer was just being really lazy.

    I think you said it all right there. The “don’t use it” rule is like all the other rules– follow it until you know what you’re doing, then you can break it to great effect.

    I agree with Jamie in that it bugs me way more in TV or movies than in novels. Strange, the things different mediums make it easier to pull off. I hadn’t thought of that.

  4. I’d avoid it like the plague, personally. Are you sure it’s a true “Deus ex Machina”? Have you foreshadowed this possiblity at all? Could you go back and sprinkle logical lead-ups? Don’t telegraph your moves, but make it work without the sudden, “and then teddy bears came to life and saved the planet” ending?

    Real “Deus ex Machina” is cheap, in my book. I don’t think it’s lazy, but ill-planned (i.e., you’ve written yourself into a corner). If the characters don’t decide their fate in the end, I’d avoid any other ending.

    Of course, some of the “characters deciding their fate” issues don’t always matter in horror fiction.

  5. Thanks for the insight everyone!

    And Aaron, it’s a tough one to explain…I have dropped several hints here and there throughout the story, but they are very vague. I am trying to write one of those stories where the WTF moments are all tied together in one paragraph. In other words, while the hints ARE there, you most likely wouldn’t notice them unless you read the novel a 2nd time (IF, that is, I have written this as I hope I have)

  6. When it’s clever, or true to the story, I have no issue with it. I only feel cheated when you can tell the author only used it for lack of any better idea.

  7. I don’t tend to use them, but only because I ain’t clever enough to come up with one that don’t seem contrived. Wish I could though…got me a stack of stories that could do with a good God-Machinery ending.

  8. Yeah I had to google the term. I’m not ashamed :^)

    Anyway, I don’t think it would be bad, in the right situation. But like Natalie says above me, if it comes off like a cop-out, its a no go. But if you think it really fits the book, and is really the best ending for the story, than I think you should do it.

  9. For me, personally, as a reader, that can make a story skid to a stop like like a toilet paper commercial during Lord of the Rings….there are times when it works, like in supernatural Neil Gaiman stories sometimes (but, even with him, not always). I guess it can be a fine line between deus ex machina and an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, but if it seems unrealistic enough to make the reader stop and think, it has a chance of interrupting the flow.

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