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Deus Ex Machina

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by YohannIan, Jan 21, 2012.

  1. YohannIan

    YohannIan Dreamer

    Deus Ex Machina..is it a good thing or a bad thing?

    People say the ending to The Lord of The Rings is kind of Deus Ex Machina, because the eagles show up and rescue Frodo. I don't find that moment bad at all. I find it very comforting. I remember thinking that was the end..and then there came the eagles led by Gandalf. It would make perfect sense that during the battle, the eagles joined the fight and afterwards they searched for survivors.

    What people like to ask is, Why couldn't they just fly to Mordor in first place? I think there's a reason, but I'm not quite sure. But I do know that it felt right; that the eagles coming in to rescue Frodo and Sam was a good thing.

    So is Deux Ex Machina bad? or is it good?
    (on a side note..does anyone know why Gwaihir and the other eagles couldn't just fly Frodo into Mordor? Was it because Sauron was in power?)

    Please and thanks!
  2. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

    It is considered sloppy writing in my book. If you have to resort to deus ex then you haven't set up your ending, your story arc is wrong and you've been lazy. Generally I think it is a bad thing. It cheapens the hard work and fighting of the characters, and any emotional investment I have in these characters.

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  3. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    In order:
    (1) Bad.
    (2) The eagles rescuing Frodo and Sam doesn't qualify–they don't show up and solve all the problems that have been built up over the course of three books; they just clean up afterward. (A better argument could be made for them being a deus ex at the battle, but there's no internal evidence that they would have been near sufficient to turn the tide without the destruction of the Ring. They couldn't even pull off the win at the end of The Hobbit without additional help arriving.)
    (3) Answered extensively in the "Tolkien" thread, but essentially that's my belief, yes.

    Real deus ex machina endings are the kind that come out of nowhere, have no excuse for existing other than to end the story, and leave you with the feeling that the writer worked his way into a corner, didn't have a clue how to get himself out of it, and was so uncaring about his audience he wasn't willing to put the work into rewriting the story so that it could be ended in some satisfactory fashion. Or even taking another fifteen minutes to try to think up something better. (Admittedly, this is not how they originated in Greek drama. The effect on an audience with normal expectations of gods sorting out mortal problems was probably quite different. Probably. Or perhaps there wasn't anything better showing at the theatres that week. :p )

    A DeM for LotR would have needed to be something along the lines of the big foot from the Monty Python credits coming down and squashing Sauron… the whole thing had gotten so big nothing less would have done the trick. Or an army of sandworm-mounted fremen rising from the southern deserts to slaughter/eat all the orcs, breach the Black Gates and let everybody else in. Or at least the eagles showing up when Frodo and Sam are staring up at the apparently-impassible mountains from outside Mordor and saying "Well, of course we can give you a lift! Duh! That Gandalf–he's such a kidder, making you walk all this way.…" A DeM for something of lesser scope, say, Robin Hood, would have been, oh, I don't know… King Richard suddenly showing up. (Wait.…) A DeM for Twin Peaks would have been… preferable.

    The problem is that, in general, dramatic situations call for dramatic solutions: it's hard to build drama when there's an obvious way out of something. Which means one person's "dramatic resolution" is often another's "came-in-from-left-field." To stick with LotR: Elrond raising the river against the Ringwraiths is a good example. (Plus Tom Bombadil, though the hobbits would probably never have wandered into those woods in the first place if Tolkien hadn't wanted to include his favorite proto-hippie-nature-spirit somehow or other.) I'm sure you could find people to argue for counting the ents, the Dead Men of Dunharrow, and the Black Fleet showing up carrying good guys rather than bad–though in all these cases, the groundwork had been laid within the text, which is a far different thing than if they'd simply popped up out of nowhere at the most opportune moment. ("'Ents'? What the hell are 'ents'? Have you gone potty, Jack?" "Uhm… yeah. Guess I'd better add something about why they show up, huh? Let's see… maybe if I make it four hobbits, instead of just two, I can have the others–") In none of those cases is it anywhere near as bad as some bowman managing a kill shot through a dragon's lone missing scale with a single arrow–after he's had all the time in the world to put the thing's eyes out.

    But blinding the dragon wouldn't be as dramatic, eh? ;)
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
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  4. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    In reference to the eagles and solving the ring problem, I think there's a youtube video out there making this point. However, the eagles show up after the master of the one ring is destroyed, if I recall, to pick up Frodo and Sam. Mightn't Sauron have had a chance to intercept the ring, one his ring wraiths had been seeking if it were approaching from high in the air and in the open? Even the video indicates that Sauron would have to be distracted in some way for the mission to succeed.

    Beyond that, I agree pretty much with what Ravana indicated about Deus Ex Machina. I'd ask, what was the point of the characters' struggles and even writing the story if a supernatural power simply swoops in at the end and sets things to right. Rescuing Sam and Frodo with the eagles, I think felt right too (although in the movie, I think they'd have been long cooked and dead from toxic fumes sitting on a rock surrounded by massive flows of lava). The characters solved the problem of the ring on their own, without any out of the blue intervention and assistance.

    One thing that can avoid the Deus Ex Machina, if gods or other such powers do play a part, is the use of foreshadowing.
  5. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    True Deus Ex Machina is pretty lazy. Most times it is used it isn't a pure version of it, because the mechanism has been hinted at - we just haven't been led to believe it would be a part of the resolution. As Ravana mentioned, the eagles are not actually a Deus Ex because they don't resolve any of the real plot conflicts. The climax had already been reached by the time they show up.

    A true Deus Ex like that seen in Shakespeare's As You Like It is completely out of the blue. No hint at it beforehand and really rather confusing, cuz it has nothing to do with the plot so far.

    Also the game Deus Ex was awesome. Just thought I'd put that out there.
  6. Here's some utter conjecture: I like to think that the decline of the DeM is due to advancement in the techniques of storytelling. Earlier in our history, storytelling was a younger art, and the idea of a huge mess being created and then the gods coming in to Make It All Better was a nice bit of wishful thinking that made everyone feel good. How many times in our lives have we gotten into a mess and we just wish that someone would wave a magic wand and make it all better? Does anyone really say, "This situation is horrible, and the only way I want it to resolve is lots of hard, character-building work on my part, and I won't accept any easy outs!"?

    But people eventually realized that more organic resolutions to stories were even more satisfying, because it's how we wish we could be. It's easier to identify with the character if he does have to struggle, just like in real life -- because in real life, there are very rarely DeMs to solve our problems. So people became more attached to such stories, and eventually DeMs fell out of favor. Not that people don't use them any more (or their inverse, which is to take otherwise intelligent characters and have them do something colossally stupid just to get the plot moving further forward -- see the third act of Zombieland), but at least they're universally recognized as bad.
  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I would like to think that Deus ex Machina wasn't Deus ex Machina at the time because, like that character who disappeared in the second act to reemerge and save the day in the third, the gods are already presumed to be a part of the story. But that doesn't matter to us nowadays. Really using Deus ex Machina, a solution that's from literally nowhere, is just kind of sloppy.

    What I find interesting, though, is why having characters disappear early on so that they can save the day later can have a powerful effect if done well, yet pretty much look like Deus ex Machina if executed poorly. I think it has to do with the elements of surprise, excitement at seeing the character return, and a sense of "oh goodie, the day's about to be saved." (Of course, you can then subvert that and have something bad happen, also sometimes to great effect.)

    You've opened pandora's box on Tolkein; I won't peer much inside that one. I will say that I don't think the eagles are a problem, except that Tolkein didn't have characters talk address the eagles enough to show you why it wasn't a problem. I think that's true for a lot of the complaints I see about good stories.
  8. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    You'd like to think that, and I'm sure to some extent it's true. On the other hand, the practice of using DeM was already being criticized as early as Aristotle's Poetics, and Euripides was so notorious for using it that his contemporary Aristophanes not only parodies it but has Euripides himself as the deus showing up to instantly resolve all the complications he'd generated for himself in various disguises throughout the play (Thesmophoriazusae, translated as "The Women's Festival" or some variant thereon). So I'd have to say that even in its heyday, it was recognized as dubious practice.

    Which didn't stop writers from using it, nor audiences from enjoying the plays. So, yes, sometimes it is nice to have someone else sort everything out. On the other hand, most of the plays it appears in were tragedies, not comedies–the difference in Greek drama not being the presence of humor, but rather that comedies had happy endings (a distinction that continued at least to the time of Dante: Divina Commedia is hardly what we'd consider a laugh riot). So the deus generally didn't "make it all better" so much as make it "right"–that is, apply what was considered justice. Sometimes not even that: the machina in Euripides' Medea is used to allow her to escape after committing murder and infanticide… "solving" her problem, not so much the play's. Which might be why it only took third place in the annual competition it was presented in: even the audience recognized Euripides cheated… certainly that "justice" was.

    Agreed. Perhaps more importantly, people eventually realized that the gods didn't show up to sort their problems out: the more organic resolutions pointed up the possibility that mundane personages–the characters the readers are invited to identify with–could solve their own problems… and thus by extension the readers themselves might (or ought to) be able to as well. Very much an empowering statement: "Hey, I don't need to sit around and hope the gods will eventually favor me… I can do something about it myself." So it's not just that it's how we wish we could be: it's suggesting that it's how we already are, give or take some investment of effort. More satisfying indeed.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  9. YohannIan

    YohannIan Dreamer

    Wow! I'm overwhelmed haha! That's quite a breakdown of it. Thanks a lot.
    Thing's seem much clearer now with your examples. :)
    Personally, have you ever (when you were young and didn't know it was bad) used a DeM in one of your stories?

    Btw TWErvin2 said
    By foreshadowing, you mean the subtle involvement of the character along the storyline? How exactly do I effectively foreshadow?
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2012
  10. YohannIan

    YohannIan Dreamer

    I agree on your view on Deus Ex Machina...AND Deus Ex the game! Go Adam Jenson!
  11. I find the use of the eagles at the end of the story is fine, its well known that gandalf had that ability to speak to the eagles (and other winged creatures) especially if you have read the hobbit where he interacts more fully with them. And it would be a bit unrealistic for him to not launch a search and rescue mission after the fall of sauron. Its what any reasonable person would do given the resources. Though having the hero abandoned at the end of the story could actually make for an interesting way of busting peoples expectations.

    my personal favourite bit of deus ex machina is Monty Pythons alien spaceship in Life of Brian, purely because it is deliberately DEM for laughs.

    Personallythough, I wouldn't dream of having a solution in my books that cannot be logically explained within the framework of the story. Or that doesn't allow the main characters to resolve situations using their own abilities. Thats why the gods in my world have had a bane placed upon them that makes it impossible for them to directly interfere in the lives of men.
  12. I wouldn't say deus ex machina is an inherently bad thing. Rather, it's one of those things you need to be careful with and only resort to if you know what you're doing. It shouldn't be used just because you wrote yourself into a corner. The only way to make it work, ironically, is by planning it ahead of time.

    Also, I'll be honest, I've seen some DeM where I plain didn't care that the writers pulled a lazy solution out of nowhere, because it was done in such a satisfying way in a situation so hopeless that the relief it brought was enough for me to accept it.
  13. Giant

    Giant Minstrel

    I actually thought the use of the dead army in Return of the Kings was a great example of DEM. Every time I watch that I think "well... here comes the dead army to wipe out all the orcs...because there is no other way to continue the story if this doesn't happen." But, that's just me.
  14. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    As I said, there are people who might argue for that. In this case, I'd say no: there was an entire chapter devoted to the characters treading the Paths of the Dead; they were given a reason to be there (and to respond to Aragorn's summons); and Aragorn's group still had to race the length of Gondor to get where they needed to be on time. (One can argue about the convenience of that timing, but the author is responsible for the timing of everything in the book, so it would get kind of pointless… if Saruman had attacked Rohan a week earlier, he would have wiped it out, for instance.) By the way: in the book, the Dead don't kill anybody.

    In this instance, it would probably mean giving the gods an actual presence earlier in the story–it doesn't need to be "subtle" at all. If a god shows up in chapter three promising "When you call on me in Ch. XIX, I'll answer," the reader is provided with a reasonable expectation that the god in question might intervene at a later point. (Okay, it doesn't need to be that blatant.… :p ) If, on the other hand, there is no mention whatsoever of gods, religion or anything related in the story prior to the divine intervention, the reader will probably be justified in feeling cheated. Split the difference. ("Foreshadowing" is usually taken to be marginally less blatant… perhaps along the lines of "Son, you remember when I told you that Atreus isn't your real father? Well.…" Classic Greek device. Though that could hardly be considered subtle, I think.)

    Even then, the god shouldn't just pop up and solve everything. Maybe the "intervention" is nothing more than a disembodied voice saying "Don't go that way. Never go that way." (Of course, if anybody remembers what the line after that is.… ;) ) Or having the barrage of arrows intercepted by a sudden cascade of lemmings from the cliff above. (Still fairly obviously a DeM, but at least an unconventional one.) Or causing the villain's sword to become hopelessly lodged in the rib cage of the hero's best friend. A few divine favors like that, and the hero will learn it's better to take care of his own problems.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  15. Konjurer

    Konjurer Dreamer

    Never a fan...

    I've never been a fan of Deus ex Machina in any form, no matter how well-written a book is. I'd much rather kill off a MC or wipe out an entire city if I've written them into an unwinnable situation. I especially loathe DeM in the movies. I love LOTR in books, absolutely hate the craptastic movies. Let's hope they don't try that with The Hobbit.
  16. On the other hand, shouldn't this work in reverse? That is to say, one can use a Deus ex Machina as foreshadowing?

    For example, suppose I've put my heroes into a situation where they are essentially doomed. They are outnumbered and surrounded and have failed to destroy the McGuffin, which is now in the hands of the villains, who are just about to finish the heroes off and take over the world. Evil has, apparently, triumphed!

    ...And then this mysterious unidentified third party shows up and just steamrolls the bad guys. Then they say something cryptic, steals the McGuffin and leaves. And everyone, heroes and villains alike, are like: "Wait, what? What the hell was that?"

    Wouldn't that be an exciting twist? Suddenly there is a whole new faction that nobody knew about until that point, and everone has to deal with the fact that they no longer have any idea what's really going on.
  17. SlimShady

    SlimShady Troubadour

    That would actually be pretty cool. But, obviously it couldn't end that way. You'd have to devote a sequel or more chapters of the heroes finding out about this third faction and then saving the day. Or losing again if you like tragedies.
  18. Well, of course. I'm pretty sure nobody said the god from the machine had to show up at the end of the story, or that he could never make a second appearance. It would make a great cliffhanger, though.

    Wikipedia says a deus ex machina is simply: "a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object." That sounds pretty workable to me.
  19. Konjurer

    Konjurer Dreamer

    Nope. Still sounds like a cop-out to me. Just my opinion, but the very term deus ex machina conjures up images of "divine intervention" and crap like that. Ancient literature is littered with examples of this. Everything from Homer's Illiad to The Epic of Gilgamesh and even into the Bible are just a few examples. There's no reason that good authors can't write their characters out of "no-win" situations.
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    There is no absolute of this sort in writing. A DeM should be generally avoided. Is it impossible to employ it effectively? I'd say no, particularly if the author has knowingly, and purposefully employed one, rather than doing so inadvertently or because they can't think of another solution.

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