You’re watching a film or reading a book. The antagonist has trapped the main character on a small island miles from civilization. The character has a crippling aquaphobia and so cannot attempt to swim away. A volcano has just erupted on the island and is starting to surround the protagonist. He can feel the heat of the lava as it inches closer and closer to the rock he is tied to. He struggles against the restraints, but the poison in his system leaves his movements weak and futile. His sight blurs, and the poison begins to consume him as the lava burns through the grass at his feet. Basically, the protagonist is in an impossible situation with no visible solution.
Then, like a spot in his vision, a black shape in the distance appears and widens with each blink. Just as he almost falls into a painful abyss of unconsciousness, he catches a glimpse of long talons, thick black scales, and piercing gold eyes: a dragon. With a quick slice of the dragon’s teeth, his bonds fall free, but the dragon reaches out to grab him in its talons before he drops into the bubbling lava. The protagonist wonders as he is carried away from the island, Where did this creature come from? How had it known he had been in trouble?
Most of us would feel cheated with such an ending. If a character is surrounded by boiling lava, tied up, and poisoned, then a random dragon comes sweeping in to save the protagonist from the brink of death, it does frustrate us readers. As writers, we must avoid these types of solutions at all costs. So how do we create realistic solutions to problems? How do we write successful scenes where it appears all is lost for our characters? How do we avoid using dragons as last-ditch attempts out of sticky situations?
Deus Ex Machina Explained
In the above example of the dragon appearing out of nowhere to help a dying protagonist, this type of plot device is called a deus ex machina, meaning “a god from the machine” in Latin. Deus ex machinas originated from Greek theatre, particularly Greek tragedies, where the hero is in such an enormously horrible situation that the only solution is for divine intervention from a Greek god.
In today’s literature and pop culture, many writers also include types of deus ex machinas. Popular examples include The Lord of the Rings series where author J. R. R. Tolkien saves the characters from the slopes of Mount Doom with the sudden appearance of eagles. These eagles, which were only side notes to the story before, sweep in as saviors and carry the characters to safety. The unexpected appearance of these eagles is never really explained, and nothing in the books helped lead up to their actions. Another example is from Jurassic World. I love this movie, so the ending is a major bummer. The Indominus Rex is dragged into the water by the mosasaurus, the sea creature that only had a brief appearance in the film and yet suddenly shows up to save the day. The T-Rex and raptor were already overcoming the Indominus Rex, and the help of the mosasaurus was almost unnecessary, which made it even worst. Both of these stories are examples of deus ex machinas.
Why a Deus Ex Machina
So if a deus ex machina is so terrible why does this literary device even exist? There is usually two main causes. First, there is too much conflict that a character cannot get out of it. This is in cases like The Lord of the Rings when the characters find themselves in so much peril that they cannot escape on their own. Writers who tend to abuse their characters and overdo it on challenges will likely face this issue. The second reason is some writers may not want to hurt their main characters. In situations like this, rather than have a character die in a scenario that realistically should kill them, they protect that character by throwing in some random savior. Both of these situations will weaken your writing and leave your readers feeling cheating.
Alternatives to Deus Ex Machinas
What, then, can be used instead of deus ex machinas? There are two main alternatives to this problem.
In some situations, there is an excessive amount of conflict, almost over-the-top amounts, and this is when you may be tempted to throw in a deus ex machinas. While danger certainly adds tension, drama, and excitement to your story, it can also derail your story when it becomes too much. Yes, trials must be included in any story, but when the danger becomes so overwhelming that the only solution is a deus ex machina, then you know you went a notch too far.
The exception to this is in cases where you actually do not want your character to escape or survive the danger. So, the second alternative to deus ex machinas is that characters fail to escape or suffer greatly from the escape. For example, in the young adult novel Graceling by Kristin Cashore, one of the main characters suffers a permanent physical ailment as a side effect of escaping the antagonist of the story. Another example is Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, where Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son from the evil, powerful emperor, which allows Luke to escape just in time. Sacrifice is good to have in any story, and it is often needed to avoid using deus ex machinas.
Steps to Avoiding Deus Ex Machinas
Solution #1: Lessen the Conflict
1) Outline all the major reasons the character cannot escape the trials.
2) Star/mark any of the conflicts that are absolutely necessary.
3) Look at the necessary conflicts and explain how each of these conflicts can be overcome.
4) If one of them cannot be solved by the protagonist but needs to be a part of your story, then either lessen the conflict enough for the protagonist to survive or see solution #2.
5) If you can solve all these main problems without a dues ex machina, examine the other conflicts in the story that are less important. The combination of these might be making escape impossible. Gradually remove or lessen any that impede the ability of characters to overcome the trials without divine intervention.
Solution #2: Add Sacrifice
1) Make a list of all your characters. Decide which characters absolutely must survive and cross those characters off the list.
2) Look at the remaining characters and choose one that you believe would be the best to sacrifice so your other characters can escape the trials.
3) Decide how the character’s sacrifice will help the characters escape/defeat the danger. (For example, a character stays behind to keep the antagonist busy and is killed while the others sneak out of the antagonist’s lair.) This sacrifice will show readers that the characters didn’t magically escape and will add reality to the situation.
4) Write the aftermath of this situation. The characters must deal with the consequences and mourn the sacrifice.