Deus ex machina is Latin for “god from the machine.”
It refers to the days when playwrights in ancient Rome couldn’t figure out how to end a play so they had a god come down (lowered by a machine behind the stage) and resolve the plot.
The phrase is typically used in derision of plotlines that end unbelievably.
Just imagine you and your family are stuck on the top of a mountain. Things look pretty bleak. People are going to die.
But then some superhero flies in to save the day.
Pretty unbelievable, right?
If this were fiction the writer obviously couldn’t figure out how to get the characters off the mountaintop.
So, he resorted to some extraordinary means…and the reader is dissatisfied.
How To Use Deus Ex Machina Effectively
The reason that a superhero flying in to save the day is unbelievable is because that possibility has not been properly foreshadowed.
It’s like taking scuba lessons and finding your teacher is the President of the United States.
If you know you will be using something that is potentially unbelievable in your plot you must build up to it gradually.
The possibility for it to happen in the end must be established in the beginning.
Maybe one of the characters is unknowingly friends with this superhero. Maybe the President loves teaching scuba diving as a hobby.
If the reader knows about the possibility of something happening before hand they are more likely to believe it and it makes more realistic fiction.
When you understand this little trick about creating the possibility that it could happen, then you will start seeing dues ex machina happening throughout the plot of all sorts of novels, TV shows and movies.
Take Jurassic Park For Example
At the end of the story the characters are being hunted by the deadly and intelligent Raptors. They are outnumbered and things just don’t look good. How will they possibly escape?
Enter the Tyrannosaurus Rex to save the day.
This is a believable ending because we have seen the Tyrannosaurus Rex prowling around in the plot before hand. It is not a great leap of the imagination to think a Tyrannosaurus Rex might step in and eat a Raptor as it is about to eat one of the main characters.
It might just have been a superhero flying in or the President swimming up with some Navy Seals. The possibility of this just needs to exist before hand in the plot.
So, if you are stuck and don’t know how to move your plot forward use dues ex machina. Just remember that you will have to foreshadow it enough to make it believable.