Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device to Avoid

Monday, August 29, 2016

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.

Get on with It

Monday, August 22, 2016


I like watching baseball, especially when the Cubs are playing. But I hate the MLB replay rules, especially this year after changes to other rules increased the number of challengeable calls.

In the “good old days,” when a manager challenged a call, the action paused. The field umpires would get together to decide whether to overturn it. Because they had to rely on what they saw at the time, they made mistakes, even after a challenge. But it probably came out even in the long run, with each team benefiting from an approximately equal number of wrong calls.

Now whenever a play is close, the action doesn’t just pause, it stops. First, the manager of the team that didn’t get the call takes his time deciding whether to challenge the play. Then, if he does, delay is extended while people who aren’t even in the park watch replays from different camera angles. Yes, they get it right most of the time, but it isn’t worth the wait.

Unfortunately, many novels are like that. The author is so interested in getting his or her message across that the action stops. Christians are among the worst offenders, here. Although there are exceptions, I rarely buy fiction from Christian publishers anymore because the message tends to overwhelm the story.

For a novelist, the only effective way to convey a message is to weave it seamlessly into the story. I’d rather interpret the clues myself than have the author stop the action to explain them. Not only is explaining the lazy writer’s way out, but it gives me a great place to put the book down.

If the baseball game is close and exciting, I may wait out the replay. If a book has a fascinating story line, I may skip over the lecture and continue reading.

But I’m more likely to keep reading if the author has already skipped the lecture.


The photograph of Wrigley Field is © 1991 by Rick Dikeman and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes have been made to the photograph other than to resize it.

Sifting through the Rubble

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is one of the best-documented events in history. Chicago was a newspaper town, and within 48 hours most of the major papers were back up and running. They had plenty of eyewitness accounts to choose among, including those from their owners and reporters. Other educated persons quickly published their own eyewitness accounts. Then the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners held a public inquiry, heard sworn testimony from fifty-one witnesses, and published its report—all before the end of the year.

Even so, much of the evidence is inconclusive. We know where the fire started, but we don’t know how. We don’t even know exactly when. (The evidence puts it anywhere between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) We know that the early response to the fire was a comedy of errors (combined with circumstances beyond anyone’s control), but we don’t always know who was responsible for the errors or the reasons for them. And only God knows whether the fire could have been controlled if everything had gone right.

In 1871, even the most reputable newspapers had a taste for sensationalism. Besides that, eyewitness testimony is only as reliable as the eyewitness is. Some people misinterpret what they see, some exaggerate, and some simply make things up for effect. So how much of the eyewitness accounts can I use in my middle-grade historical novel on the Great Chicago Fire?

Take this story:

One little girl, in particular, I saw, whose golden hair was loose down her back and caught afire. She ran screaming past me, and somebody threw a glass of liquor upon her, which flared up and covered her with a blue flame.

At first glance, the story looks pretty improbable. Not because the girl’s hair caught fire—that was common. But would somebody really be mean enough to throw alcohol on her? Still, maybe it wasn’t meanness and the person was so intoxicated that he thought his drink would put out the fire like water would. Besides, the eyewitness was Alexander Frear, a visitor who was a member of the New York State Assembly and a New York City commissioner. Surely we can believe someone like that.

Maybe yes, and maybe no. I can hear you saying, “Never believe a politician.” But for me, the biggest problem with Mr. Frear’s is that it is filled with similarly dramatic events. One or two such instances might simply mean that Mr. Frear was observant and knew how to use vivid language to describe what he saw, but the entire account seems over the top.

So even if it’s true, I won’t be using the story of the girl catching fire from a liquor bath. And that’s okay, because I don’t need it. There are plenty of better documented yet still dramatic incidents scattered among the many eyewitness accounts.

It’s all a matter of sifting through the rubble.

Don't Vote for Me

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bayeux, France, © 2015 Kathryn Page Camp

No, I’m not running for public office, but I did enter an online photography competition that is part popularity contest.

I entered the two photographs included with this blog in The Times Destinations Photo Contest. The winners are chosen by viewer voting that occurs from today (August 8) through Thursday (August 11). I encourage you to go to and vote for your favorites. However, I am not suggesting that you vote for me.

While popularity is nice, I believe in basing choices primarily on merit. I’ve seen some of the other entries, and I’m highly unlikely to win based on either criteria. But I don’t mind. I’d rather the winners were chosen for the photograph’s merit rather than the photographer’s popularity. And that won’t happen unless a significant number of people vote for their favorite photos without regard to the photographer.

Wittenberg, Germany, © 2016 Kathryn Page Camp
Like art, merit is in the eye of the beholder. I wince every time I see an E.E. Cummings poem. It isn’t just the lack of capital letters, either, because I am equally bothered when I just listen. His poetry makes me wonder if he used gimmicks because he was too lazy to write great lines. But some people think he’s a genius. (And I do have to admit that I like “maggie and milly and molly and may.”) The merit in poetry is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.
Photography works that way, too. Not everyone likes the same pictures, and that’s okay.
If you really like one of my entries and want to vote for it, fine. But vote for the photo.
Don’t vote for me.
The first photo shows the old world charm of Bayeux, France, which is a small but vibrant town located in Normandy.
In the second photo, the steeples of the Town Church (St. Marien) tower over the houses lining the town square in Wittenberg, Germany.

Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Cutting What Doesn't Belong

Monday, August 1, 2016

I had planned four Laura Ingalls Wilder lessons for July, and then I was going to move on. However, my plans, like my fiction writing, are flexible.

As I prepared last month’s blog posts, I became interested in Laura’s first book, which was an actual autobiography (not a fictionalized version) written for adults. The manuscript was not published in either Laura’s or Rose’s lifetime, but it is now available as Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography edited (and annotated) by Pamela Smith Hill. I didn’t have it, so I found it on Amazon and bought a copy.

Laura’s Pioneer Girl manuscript went through several drafts, most of which contained Rose’s edits. To get as close to Laura’s voice as possible, Hill used the original unedited draft and noted where the changes occurred in subsequent versions. This manuscript apparently became the master reference for Laura when writing the Little House books, so Hill also noted the differences between Laura’s recollections of her life and the fictionalized versions.

One issue hinted at in The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder and explicitly mentioned in the Pioneer Girl annotations is the choice to cut out some incidents and details that didn’t contribute to the fictional stories. Laura’s reluctance to cut some of these details resonates with me because I have the same problem.

On the Banks of Plum Creek contains a scene where Laura plays on a plank used as a bridge. The creek is swollen from the spring rains, and Laura is almost swept away in the rushing waters. In real life, Ma was very sick and Laura was trying to reach the neighbor on the other side of the stream to ask him to go to town and telegraph for the doctor, who was 40 miles away. Why did the scene get transformed? Here is part of the exchange of letters between Laura and Rose, as quoted in note 66 on page 85 of the annotated Pioneer Girl.

“I am doubtful about Ma’s sickness,” Lane wrote her mother on June 13, 1936. “It is such a wretched miserable time, and in that kind of nasty grasshopper atmosphere, I think the grasshoppers are enough. I believe it would be better to cut out Ma’s sickness altogether.” But, she added, “the part about the creek is a pity to leave out.” Wilder, however, considered the entire episode important. She wrote Lane, “I do think the picture of two little girls doing what they did while Ma was sick and the fact that it was nothing for a Dr to be 40 miles away and no auto, would make a great impression on children who are so carefully doctored in schools and all.” [Internal cites omitted.]

In the end, Laura agreed to cut Ma’s sickness from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

When writing my historical fiction, I often want to include details and events that I believe my audience should learn about. Unfortunately, not all of them add to the story, and some even detract from it. And Laura and I aren’t the only ones who have struggled with this problem. I have read and critiqued other authors dealing with the same issue.

It hurts me to cut educational scenes that don’t add to the story, but I am getting better at it. For the reader, the story comes first, and the writer needs to honor that.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


The photo shows the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The sign marks the spot where the Ingalls’ dugout was located. I took the picture in 2010.