03 October 2010

Trope: Deus Ex Machina

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Tropes are storytelling devices. This series of articles on how to use or not use them in comics was first published in my Comics & Cartoons Weekly on deviantART.

Deus Ex Machina

"Deus ex machina" means "god out of the machine", and refers to situations in Greek theater where a god was lowered onto a scene with a crane to resolve everything. In today's storytelling, it is "an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him." Source: tvtropes.org

In real life, we call it a stroke of luck or, if it's amazing enough, divine intervention. In fiction, we call it cheating! Sure, the writer is the "god" of his or her world, so to speak, but it's not supposed to show. When it does, the reader is yanked out of the story and reminded that someone is pulling the strings, and not so skillfully at that. It's already described as "unbelievable" in life, and it's all the more un-believable in a story. It also, often, robs the lead character of their achievement: how disappointing is it when your hero(ine) has arrived to the final battle, and instead of pulling a moment of awesomeness with all that they have learned along the story, triumphs not by their abilities but because the big villain tripped?

There are numerous examples where the DEM was used successfully, or subverted, but in most of them the script was intentionally written around it, as opposed to it being thrown in for lack of a better idea at a sticky point in the plot.
An example of straight DEM is Batman, who is, or at least was in the past, a repeat offender, seeming to always have a gadget on him to solve any situation. The writers abused the character's inventiveness so that it became a readymade explanation for the presence of that particular gadget, no matter how ludicrous it became in the end . By now it is completely inappropriate for the more serious angle under which Batman is written nowadays.
The same usage of right-gizmo-at-the-right-time, however, works in the James Bond movies because the grand unveiling of each episodes' gadgets is a ritual part of the movies, which have to be understood as tongue-in-cheek on all levels. The more a story takes itself seriously, in the sense that it draws the reader into an experience from which he must not emerge till the last page is read, the more damage a Deus Ex Machina inflicts on it.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as a means of scanning your plot for DEM:

- Did you solve a situation by introducing something out of nowhere? (See examples in the description above).

- Did you introduce an element early in your story to solve a situation that arises later – but fail to tie this element with the frame of the story in a way that looks natural? For instance: your character acquired a tool at the beginning of the story, that ends up saving the day in the end – but there was no particular reason for him to acquire it in the first place. So the tool is floating in the story and what's more, by bringing it to the reader's attention (through its acquisition out of the blue), you announced loud and clear that this thing would save the day. (There's something to be said for making the readers feel intelligent because they guessed what was going to happen. I don't however, think it's a good thing when it also makes them feel the writer is witless.)

- Did you solve a situation using circumstances or characters that belong to the very setting of the story – but in a way that is contrived and not believable? For instance, to use an example from the site: "the local militia bursts in and shoots the villain. Maybe it was established earlier that the militia protects the countryside, but for them to somehow divine that there is a fight going on at this isolated farm and to burst in just in time to save the day is a Deus Ex Machina."

- Does your resolution rely entirely on one character's particularities, so that it only works because the situation involved that person and no other? For instance: the bank robbers pick one hostage to shoot, not knowing that they picked the very person that can't be killed by bullets? (If the character volunteered, knowing his ability, it would improve the story by removing some of the "luck" element.)

In the end, since this is not an exact science, what works and what doesn't is really to be judged on a case-by-case basis, so getting feedback on your plot before you start drawing may save you much regrets. The definite rule to be derived from this is: Avoid injecting "luck" into your plot as much as possible!