While reading a review (First mistake, reading reviews. It generally goes against my nature, but this was a special case) the other day I read something that got me thinking. The reviewer pointed out that an otherwise good story was marred by an overbearing use of deus ex machina, or some other eloquently stated version of that, I don’t remember the exact words.
Wikipedia (Yeah, I know, not the most reliable source, but it works for this example so back off, ass) defines Deus ex Machina as a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.
Pretty nifty term, right? And we all love our nifty terms. The internet is full of them. Asshat, noob, dumb bastard, diddly fiddler, wanker, wombat, walrus, and wheezlefuhrer, for example. Okay, I might have made that last one up. Just testing you.
So this nifty new term is all about when a writer pulls some ol’ bullshit right out of his (or her) ass to resolve a plot. Makes sense, but let me ask you this: What’s the difference between deus and a just plain ending?
As writers, our job is to paint our characters into corners while surrounded by hungry boogey men with flaming pitchforks of hatred, or something like that. If a character was put into an easily solvable situation, then there would be no reason to continue reading, because there would be no danger.
What if you picked up a book and the blurb on the back read: Follow the harrowing tale of Gary Drinkwater as he tries to decide the fate of his breakfast. Will it be toast? Or will it be CEREAL? There’s also the non-stop subplot of his wife and her incapability of taming the intangible wardrobe.
Does that sound like something you would want to read? Fuck no you wouldn’t. That’s every day for most of us and those aren’t problems. The answer, by the way is cereal, it’s always been cereal.
Now what if the blurb read: Follow along as Gary Drinkwater tries to get to his kitchen table through the piles of death-blaster toting alien bullfrogs whose only weakness is fat steel drum beats? Meanwhile, his wife battles zombie appliances come back from the undead to cosmetically enhance her, from the inside out?
Sounds a little more interesting, right? Sure, it’s not Gaiman level prose, but it might be a fun story to read, yeah? Now, say in that second tale at the climax of the story the husband uses magic to summon the Wailers to his living room to ward off the aliens. That’s pretty fucking ridiculous, agreed? You might even be tempted to call it deus ex machina. No one saw that shit coming. Right out of left field, that solution just slapped you in the face like a Larry Bird fastball. Yeah, I know, Larry Bird played hockey. I’m not big on sports, okay?
However, when we break it down, we are talking about a story involving reggae hating aliens and living appliances, isn’t that pretty outlandish to begin with? So wouldn’t a pretty outlandish ending be fitting? Better than saying the whole thing was some stupid fucking dream.
Now, yes, I know I’ve gone a bit overboard with my example, but the point remains the same even if you dull it down a bit. The hero always gets put in a corner and there is always a surprising way out of it. Some might call that deus, but if surprising your readers is poor use of the deus ex machina, than I want to Deus Like a Mother Fucker. Serious. I’m going to deus all damn day.
Writers. Readers. Inhuman space monsters, please comment your feelings on this and feel free to call me an asshat. Also, I like to tweet a lot, so feel free to tweet any crazy ideas with #DeusLikeAMotherFucker (or #DeusAllDay for the PG crowd) and I will retweet all of the good ones.