About ten years ago, I bought and read a middle-grade book called The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. It got rave reviews, and I understood why as I read most of the story. But then I got to the end, where the author used deus ex machina to set up the next book in the series. That soured me on the author and even on the book I had already read. I never did read the rest of the series, and the only reason I still have my copy of the first book is because it is such a good example of the modern use of this trick.
So what is deus ex machina? It is a literary device that employs an unexpected and improbable person or event to resolve a seemingly unresolvable problem. The phase is Latin for “God in the machine” and comes from a practice used by the ancient Greek playwrights. They would get their mortal characters into a mess that no human being could untangle, and then a god or goddess would suddenly show up and make everything right.
SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on reading The City of Ember, you might want to stop reading this post here.
In The City of Ember, the two protagonists leave their doomed underground city and discover the world above. Although our heroes find the way out, nobody else knows it and there is no way to return with the information. So how will the protagonists pass on their knowledge and save the citizens of Ember?
Conveniently, they find a tunnel on a hillside and crawl into it with a candle for light. Conveniently, they discover that the tunnel ends in the nick of time and avoid falling into a deep pit. Conveniently, the hole goes all the way down to Ember (which is about as realistic as people digging their way to China). Conveniently, they have a message with them that warns the citizens of Ember and gives the escape route. So the protagonists throw the message down the hole and, conveniently, it hits somebody on the head far below.
That’s too many coincidences for my taste.
Maybe you want to use a particular resolution in your story, and it sounds too much like the gods intervened. Do you have to discard it altogether? Not necessarily. It may be workable if you set it up beforehand and give your human characters a significant role in the final solution.
I had that issue in Creating Esther. Vision quests are a big part of Native American culture, so I wanted to give my protagonist a vision that helps resolve the main conflict. However, I was worried that it might sound too convenient and contrived and be viewed as deus ex machina. So what did I do?
First, I wove information about vision quests into the first part of the story. Later, when Ishkode has her vision, I replicated the traditional conditions as much as possible given the story line. The setting is unusual, but the situation is not. Hopefully, this set-up will give the reader two reactions to the vision: surprise and acceptance (an “of course” response). And while the vision provides the clue to resolving the problem, the final solution is in Ishkode’s human response. She has to interpret her vision and choose whether to follow its wisdom.
The deus ex machina in The City of Ember was enough to turn me off to the book and the rest of the series. So if you want to keep your readers for subsequent books (series or stand-alones), never use deus ex machina.
Actually, never is too strong. If you are using the device intentionally as humor, go ahead. If you are really trying to show God (or a god) working miracles, you may be able to make it believable by setting the stage in advance.
But if your plot needs help, don’t expect the gods to do your work for you.
The photograph shows a statue of the goddess Artemis, which was sculpted around 125-175 AD. I took the picture while visiting the Ephesus Museum in Turkey in 2006.