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.