Deus ex Machina: How to End Your Story with Impact
March 12, 2018
Ending your story is hard. It’s not as easy as choreographing an epic battle between the protagonist and the villain or cleaning up the mess that is your plot with one epic scene. It’s never that easy. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of mess-ups and and many drafts to get right. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ve probably ended the right story the wrong way before. There’s nothing more unsatisfying than a book whose introduction is better than the ending.
There are a lot of ways to screw up the final moments of your story, but today we’re going to talk about deus ex machina, which is, in short, an excellent way to cheat your audience out of the climatic ending they deserve.
So let’s talk about it. What is deus ex machina and how do you get rid of it?
What is Deus ex Machina?
So if you’ve ever read a Greek Tragedy like Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, then you know that the characters are so unfortunate that they can’t be helped. They literally need a Chorus to mediate for them and be like, hey guys, I know Oedipus is having a day, but let’s just try to enjoy it.
And while there was no helping Oedipus out, Greek tragedies often had mediators who came in the form of omnipotent gods. They came in after the whole thing had gone to shite and then they fixed it up because, well, they could. After all, now that half the cast is dead and married to their grandfathers and the audience is crying into their togas, it’s time for a happy ending. Often these gods would be lowered in by a crane or lifted onto the stage via some sort of platform or crude machine. Therefore, they called this deus ex machina, or ‘god from the machine’.
In literature today, deus ex machina refers to any problem that is fixed by convenient causes. For example, say you build an entire story around a character looking for a home, but she’s unemployed and needs money. Instead of working for it, your heroine’s problem is resolved by her aunt, who is revealed as an eleventh-hour twist. She passes away, leaving a huge inheritance to the protagonist. Bam. Problem solved.
That’s a no-no. You’re swinging the dead aunt around from a crane. And that’s kind of sick.
Noticing the Signs
Sometimes deus ex machina isn’t as clear cut as all of that. Sometimes we do it with a little more finesse. Here are some signs that your resolution features deus ex machina.
Was it too convenient?
Deus ex machina is all about convenience. We writers do it so that we won’t have to fix problems that we never wanted to write in the first place or it’s just easy way to write ourselves out of a corner. We’ve all done it before at least once. Some of us knowingly, some of us, just because we’re lazy. Ask your readers if the ending leaves them wanting more or if it was too easy. While this may point to other problems beside deus ex machina, convenience is symptomatic of deus ex machina, especially when used in combination with these next signs.
Is there a “god” involved?
Gods can come in many forms. From the deceased aunt and her inheritance to that cold slice of pizza I just found in the fridge. Everything can be a little holy to the right person. Your god might be a person or an object. If it’s solving the problem for the character, then that’s how you know it’s a god. For example, my problem was that I was hungry. My goal is to learn how to cook new recipes, but instead of cooking something new, I just heated up a slice of pizza. It solved my problem, sure, but it didn’t contribute to my character growth. Therefore, pizza is my god.
Does your story end with too many loose threads?
When all is said and done, you want your book to be a neat little parcel wrapped up so gosh darn well that it takes the jaws of life to crack it back open. Every question should be answered, every subplot should come to an end, and everything that was introduced should come back to help or hurt the protagonist. If in Chapter seven, you introduce our aforementioned heroine’s ability to cheat at blackjack undetected, but then she never uses this skill in the finale, then why did you even bother introducing it? Loose threads like unused talents, unfinished subplots, or answered questions point to a deus ex machina ending. And better yet, they can be the cure you need for a lazy ending.
How to Fix it
Don’t freak out if your entire ending is a mess. Sure you’ll have to rewrite maybe all of it, but it’s better that way and you’ll be happier with it. Go back to the drawing board. First, what were you trying to say with the ending? Besides laziness, there’s a reason we chose a certain element than say having a literal god appear and sort everyone out. Why an aunt’s inheritance? Were you trying to get an emotional response from the audience? Did you want to convey a theme of family? Think about these things as you redraft the ending.
Not everything has to go. You may find that some scenes are exactly what you wanted for your ending. Moreover, these scenes can drive the next draft. Don’t just go in guns blazing and hit that delete button!
If you’re out of ideas for an ending, try thinking about your novel’s loose threads. Unused talents like our heroine’s ability to cheat at the casino without raising suspicion is neat and it can help her make money. That could potentially spar an idea for a climax that revolves around her and some of the supporting characters coming up with a scheme to cheat a casino out of thousands of dollars. And hey, maybe her aunt can help. You know, if she’s alive.
If There’s No Easy Fix
It’s worth mentioning that deus ex machina can be unfixable at a base level. In some stories, you can write yourself into a scary place and employ deus ex machina to get back to the light.
Let’s revisit Susan, the baker that got cornered into an alleyway.
If you’ve written your story into a corner, it might be a little broken, but we can fix it. First, if your character can’t handle the situation, go back to the moment that got him into the trouble and just never let him get back into that particular situation. Give her smaller obstacles to face and let her shine when she has the skills needed. Or, just go in earlier and give your protagonist the skills she needs to succeed.
Gone are the days of crazy Greek tragedies and the gods that picked up the pieces. If you’ve written yourself into a corner or laziness has made you avoid fictional problems, avoid deus ex machina. It’s cheesy and makes for an uninteresting read. If you’ve lost ideas for your ending, take some time to think it over and then come back in fresh. Complex problems deserve complex solutions.
Check back Next Monday for another great post! Happy Writing!