The last time I discussed avoiding deus ex machina scenes by foreshadowing. It occurred to me that I may have given short shrift to exactly what foreshadowing is. But, first, a little review may be in order.
Deus ex machina is a plot device in which your protagonist, placed in a hopeless situation, is suddenly, dramatically and inexplicably rescued by some outside force (see my last two blogs).
OK, now that we’re up to speed let’s tackle foreshadowing. Webster’s Dictionary defines foreshadow as “to give a suggestion of (something that has not yet happened)”. In writing foreshadowing is some information or action early along that hints at a big scene or the climax of your story.
Foreshadowing not only avoids deus ex machina, it increases the tension in your novel. Your reader’s anxiety level rises as she anticipates a slam-bang ending.
Examples of foreshadowing:
Use foreshadowing in your writing to avoid those awkward deus ex machina moments and to ramp up the suspense for your reader. They’ll keep reading and, more importantly, they’ll look forward to your next book.
The last time we looked at deus ex machina, the plot device in which the hero in a story is put in a hopeless situation, then, out of the blue, someone or something appears that solves all of good guy’s problems wrapping up the story in a happy ending. It makes for easy, but generally unsatisfying, writing. Easy for you, but unsatisfying for your audience.
This is not to say that deus ex machina has not been used with success in literature. The best example I could find is in the third book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Near the end of Return of the King, Frodo and Sam have delivered the One Ring to Mount Doom and now are surrounded by a rising lava flow moments from being immolated. Suddenly, the Eagles appear and lift them to safety.
If you saw the movie, like me, you probably cheered as the Eagles bore our two heroes away. But, you and I are not J. R. R. Tolkien. Our plots have to make sense, otherwise we risk our audiences putting our books down never to be read again.
Is there ever a time, you may ask, that deus ex machina is permitted? I would answer, “Yes.” In writing about an actual situation, if a deus ex machina moment occurred then, by all means, use it. For example, in the War of 1812, the British army landed near Washington, D.C. and marched into the Capitol city and set about burning it to the ground. The White House and some other Federal buildings went up in flames. But, before they could complete turning the D.C. area into the 19th Century equivalent of a glass paved self-lighting parking lot, a hurricane suddenly appeared putting out the fires and sending the soldiers scurrying back to their ships. If you were writing a historical novel with that War as the background it would be a shame not to include that incident.
But, generally, how do you avoid those deus ex machina scenes in your fiction? You can do this by foreshadowing. You leave hints about solutions to that tricky scene or ending along the way in your story. Don’t make them too obvious, but clear enough so that at the end of that potentially impossible scene or at the conclusion of your work your audience will see how it all ties together and feel nothing but satisfaction as your hero triumphs.
In the James Bond movies there’s always a scene at the beginning with Q, the engineering mastermind of MI-6, in which he gives Bond a host of gadgets to use in his assignment. Invariably, Bond gets out of one after another impossible situation using those quirky devices. This may be a clunky example of foreshadowing, but you get the idea.
Use foreshadowing to extricate yourself from writing a deus ex machina scene. Your story will flow better and your readers will keep reading your work.
Your James Bond-like hero, in requisite tuxedo carrying his trusty Walther PPK, is trapped at the edge of a hundred foot cliff by half a dozen bad guys carrying automatic weapons. The suspense has reached its climax. We know he’s doomed. Just as the villains raise their weapons to make mincemeat of our hero a helicopter suddenly appears with guns blazing wiping out the evildoers and dropping a ladder on which our hero climbs on and rides victorious into the sunset. Wait…what?
If you wrote such an ending chances are your readers would feel cheated. After all, where did the helo come from? There was no previous scene where he arranged for a chopper rescue just at that key moment. And even if there was, how would he know the precise moment when the helicopter would arrive? Sorry, what we have is a deus ex machina moment.
What is deus ex machina? It’s a plot device in which your hero, placed in an impossible situation, is suddenly and usually dramatically and inexplicably rescued by some outside force.
The term deus ex machina is latin for “god from the machine”. It originated in the ancient Greek theater. The typical plot would involve the hero falling into an insolvable situation. Then, just in the nick of time, one of the “gods” would be lowered onto the stage by a rope and set into divinely solving all the hero’s problems. Everything would be wrapped up in a happy ending.
I recall a deus ex machina scene I wrote years ago. The hero was minding his own business in his kitchen when an assassin burst into his apartment brandishing a knife. They struggled. The hero was backed against a counter. A microwave oven was on the counter. Just as the villain was about to stab my hero, his elbow bumped the microwave, turning it on. The bad guy suddenly dropped dead. Unbeknownst to the hero and, more importantly, to the audience the villain had a pacemaker that was sensitive to microwaves. Ugh! Not very satisfying.
OK, in the interest of full disclosure, if you Google deus ex machina you’ll find several examples of famous authors using the plot device. But, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Avoid those deus ex machina moments in your fiction and your audience will thank you.
Next time I’ll discuss how you can avoid those deus ex machina moments.