What Is Deus ex Machina?
Deus ex machina, which means "God in the machine," refers to the improbable addition of a character or plot twist for the sole purpose of resolving a story without a clear ending. The term originated in ancient Greek theater, which used machines to lower or raise actors playing gods so that they would seem to appear miraculously. Aristotle disapproved of this theatrical contrivance, believing instead that plot events should emerge naturally from the structure of the work itself.
Modern deus ex machina can be self-consciously absurd, like the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a spaceship literally appears out of nowhere to save Brian as he falls out of a tower. However, a deus ex machina may also be a clunky manipulation on the part of a film director who can’t think of any other way to find resolution for his characters. Many superhero films, for instance, resort to deus ex machina in the form of suddenly acquired powers or special equipment that the audience had never heard about until that point.
How Do You Identify Deus ex Machina in Writing?
When looking to identify an instance of deus ex machina, it’s important to know the difference between an intervention that is improbable, but has been set up by events occurring earlier in the plot, and a true "cop out" ending.
Many people describe the scene in Jurassic Park, when the T-Rex suddenly comes along to kill the velociraptors that have cornered the main characters in the park cafeteria, as a deus ex machina. However, the viewer knows the T-Rex is on the loose; an earlier scene shows that it has escaped its enclosure thanks to downed power wires. Its appearance is convenient, but it is not miraculous.
Examples of Deus ex Machina
1. Homer’s The Odyssey concludes with the sudden appearance of the goddess Athena, who orders the warring parties to stop.
2. Steven King’s The Stand concludes when God detonates an atomic bomb to kill the evil characters who have flocked to the city of Las Vegas. Disliking the finality of this conclusion, King wrote in an eerie epilogue to show that the chief villain was miraculously still alive, transported to a remote island.
3. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, the author appears in the narrator as his own deus ex machina.
4. In Superman II, the superhero discovered a green kryptonite crystal just in time to reserve the effects of the "red" kryptonite to which he has deliberately exposed himself.
5. Giant eagles appear from nowhere to pluck Gandalf from the jaws of certain death in The Lord of the Rings.
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