Deus Ex Machina – Breaking the Primary Promise

Though audience expectations vary widely between genres, there are a few promises between author and reader that are inviolate. One of the most important, what I call the primary promise, is that the story will end and that the conclusion will be satisfying. The deus ex machina trope is employed when the writer solves a seemingly insurmountable problem by the intervention of some unexpected, outside force. It doesn’t need to be divine, or even mystical; if the character is cheated out of solving their own problems, then the reader is also denied satisfaction.

I once read a story about a woman who was in a violently abusive relationship. Over the course of the work, she struggled to free herself from her marriage, but in the end failed. At that point, a friend called the police and had the husband arrested for domestic violence. Though true to the real world, I felt cheated by the conclusion. I wanted the protagonist to win, to free herself and become a stronger person, not be rescued and therefore be denied her character growth. I n this case, the friend’s intervention served as a dues ex machina. I have not read anything by that author since.

The earliest references I have been able to find of effective use of deus ex machina point to ancient Greek comedies and tragedies. However, in that culture people believed that the Gods were active in their everyday lives; the gods regularly intervened to solve, or more frequently cause, problems. Divine resolution to a story was therefore satisfying to the ancient Greeks for cultural reasons, but the tactic doesn’t resonate with many modern audiences. Modern readers will forgive the use of deus ex machina to solve small problems, but tend to have a very low tolerance for the trope.

Dues ex machina is most common when writer has made it impossible for the characters to accomplish their goals. At that point, the author can either edit the plot or redefine success. If the reader can see how the protagonist initiated their own miraculous salvation, an act of God becomes a chain of cause and effect, a concept modern audiences are much more comfortable with. In addition, if a character must be rescued, but that salvation comes at a price that will clearly be crippling in the future, the feeling of anticlimax is avoided. Finally, if victory proves to be impossible in the short term, the conflict may be resolved with a tie. Not every book needs to end in victory; sometimes living to fight on is the best the protagonist can hope for.

I firmly believe that protagonists must actively wield their own salvation and damnation. As readers, we want our protagonists to struggle and win. By having an act of the god machine resolve important conflicts, the protagonist and reader both are cheated of their victory. It is essential, therefore, for the modern writer to understand the trope and how it works to avoid accidentally employing it.


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