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Old 04-27-2009, 01:15 PM   #1
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Is Deus Ex Machina Really That Bad?

A lot of writers are warned away from Deus Ex Machina endings. It's good advice; it's a lazy way out and can make the ending seem forced and emotionally unsatisfying. I'm sure slush readers see a lot of such endings. But I also think that there is a difference between *bad* Deus Ex Machina and *good* Deus Ex Machina.

After all, a casual review of the record will show hundreds of great novels with Deus Ex Machina endings. The Andromeda Strain. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (actually, most of the HP books). Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tear of the Gods. The list is endless.

But there's a subtle distinction here, and that is in most cases where it is successfully used, the Deus Ex Machina is not blatant or totally unexpected, but foreshadowed. It may be surprising, but it involves an element previously woven into the story which may be integral to the plot. Afterwards, the event "makes sense".

When you write your heroes into a corner in the Ultimate Confrontation, there's really only two ways to proceed: either they save themselves through talents already well known, or they must be saved by somebody/something else. One can always classify the latter as a type of Deus Ex Machina, but it's not necessarily a bad one. If in the end the hero gets rescued by his best friend whom he thought had left ("I've been following you all along!"), this can actually be good for the story. Of course, the less foreshadowing there is, the more contrived it feels and the louder the cries of Deus Ex Machina from the audience, but even in those cases plenty of novels seem to get away with it.
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Old 04-27-2009, 01:57 PM   #2
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If it ends the story properly, then it is good. Sorry to be glib, but that's the way I feel about it. Sometimes a miraculous rescue is perfect.
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Old 04-27-2009, 02:19 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirbruce View Post
A lot of writers are warned away from Deus Ex Machina endings. It's good advice; it's a lazy way out and can make the ending seem forced and emotionally unsatisfying. I'm sure slush readers see a lot of such endings. But I also think that there is a difference between *bad* Deus Ex Machina and *good* Deus Ex Machina.

After all, a casual review of the record will show hundreds of great novels with Deus Ex Machina endings. The Andromeda Strain. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (actually, most of the HP books). Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tear of the Gods. The list is endless.

But there's a subtle distinction here, and that is in most cases where it is successfully used, the Deus Ex Machina is not blatant or totally unexpected, but foreshadowed. It may be surprising, but it involves an element previously woven into the story which may be integral to the plot. Afterwards, the event "makes sense".

When you write your heroes into a corner in the Ultimate Confrontation, there's really only two ways to proceed: either they save themselves through talents already well known, or they must be saved by somebody/something else. One can always classify the latter as a type of Deus Ex Machina, but it's not necessarily a bad one. If in the end the hero gets rescued by his best friend whom he thought had left ("I've been following you all along!"), this can actually be good for the story. Of course, the less foreshadowing there is, the more contrived it feels and the louder the cries of Deus Ex Machina from the audience, but even in those cases plenty of novels seem to get away with it.
I think you answered your own question. If it's foreshadowed then it's workable, i.e Han returning to help Luke at the end of Star Wars. Han is a pivotal character in A New Hope and his return is a facet of his true nature. If on the other hand we'd never seen Han before and he came swooping down out of nowhere to help Luke, then it wouldn't work.
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Old 04-27-2009, 02:23 PM   #4
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Deus Ex machina usually leaves me feeling that the whole struggle of the protagonists was pointless. It cheapens the experience for me. Have you read Peter F. Hamiltons "The Night's Dawn Trilogy"? While a great series, the ending spoiled it all for me. So many subplots, so much struggle for so simple a solution? Such a shame...

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Old 04-27-2009, 04:00 PM   #5
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I consider Deus Ex to be that bad and worse.

Having said that, I don't see most of the examples given as really being DEM. Lord of the Rings certainly isn't: Yes Frodo fails at the last and it's only through Gollum that the ring is destroyed but that isn't a DEM.

DEM is "God from the Machine" and refers to the classic Greek resolution of having a god come out of nowhere to resolve the story problem. That doesn't happen in LOTR or in A New Hope. The solutions grew organically out of the story.

A New Hope would have been DEM if Superman had flown in out of nowhere and picked off all the attacking TIE Fighters with his heat vision.

I think too many people these days conflate someone other than the protagonist resolving the issue with Deus Ex Machina. They don't have to be the same thing.
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Old 04-27-2009, 04:11 PM   #6
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Actually it's the Eagles that are most often cited as the DEM in LotR.
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Old 04-27-2009, 04:57 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirbruce View Post
When you write your heroes into a corner in the Ultimate Confrontation, there's really only two ways to proceed: either they save themselves through talents already well known, or they must be saved by somebody/something else.
I guess there is at least a third way: Using only a little bit foreshadowed though until the end not really well known talents. Maybe something they had in common as children or something they've seen during their journey but didn't understand until the final confrontation. Additionally such a "talent" doesn't need to be a real "talent". It could be just the self-sacrifice of one of the heroes for example.
The bravery/tenacity of the heroes (or sometimes just their unbelievable agony) makes this often easily comprehensible to the readers. This might be just a little adaption to the first way you mentioned, but i used it already and it seemed to work quite well.

I don't know if Moejoe already meant the same. If so, sorry Moejoe for repeating your thoughts.
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Old 04-27-2009, 06:41 PM   #8
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I get your point, and when I said "something else" I was also including that. That's actually part of a plot I'm working on now... the Hero has an undiscovered ability that saves him at the end, though why that ability exists is foreshadowed and wraps up an important subplot in the story. (Harry Potter again.) But I am worried too many people will cry "DEM!" over that sort of thing.
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Old 04-27-2009, 07:14 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sirbruce View Post
Actually it's the Eagles that are most often cited as the DEM in LotR.
But that doesn't work because while the Eagles do save Frodo and Sam they only come onto the scene after the main story problem has been wrapped up. The good guys have already won by that point - now they're just counting the cost. Also with the Eagles having already saved Gandalf twice in the book it's not without precedence or foreshadowing.

It can certainly be described as taking the easy way out, but it's not a full-fledged DEM.
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Old 04-27-2009, 08:02 PM   #10
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http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.ph.../DeusExMachina
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Literature
•Another famous example is J.R.R. Tolkien's occasional use of Giant Eagles to whisk his heroes away from danger.
◦The Lord of the Rings catches some flak for the last-minute appearance of the Eagles to rescue Sam and Frodo. It isn't exactly a Deus Ex Machina, as Gandalf's connection to the Eagles through his fellow wizard Radagast is mentioned early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it's tough to expect a casual reader to remember such a tiny detail.
■As the Eagles are Manwë's messengers, this is a arguably a legitimate case of a true Deus Ex Machina.
■Tolkien called them a dangerous machine that he dared not use often with credibility. He thought them a deus ex machina, though in the books he justified them better.
■It's not just at the end of Rings. These same eagles rescue dwarves from burning trees (not only burning, but surrounded by wolves!) in The Hobbit. One of them rescues Gandalf from the roof of the Tower of Orthanc in Rings as well. Tolkien seems to have been unable to resolve the issue of characters marooned on top of high things as well as unable to resist putting them there.
■What's most irritating about the Giant Eagles is that they raise serious questions about the story's foundations, as this Bob The Angry Flower comic neatly points out.

Last edited by sirbruce; 04-27-2009 at 08:05 PM.
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Old 04-28-2009, 03:16 AM   #11
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I get your point, and when I said "something else" I was also including that. That's actually part of a plot I'm working on now... the Hero has an undiscovered ability that saves him at the end, though why that ability exists is foreshadowed and wraps up an important subplot in the story. (Harry Potter again.) But I am worried too many people will cry "DEM!" over that sort of thing.
Don't worry too much. Unfortunately it's impossible to satisfy all readers with the end of a story. I don't think too many will cry "DEM" if you choose to end your story the way you mentioned. And even if they would, there are also a lot of people who actually like "godlike intervention" or other kinds of surprises because it may correspond roughly to their own hopes and imaginations. Deus Ex Machina don't have to be bad, mostly it is but it can also be apposite to the story you've told until then.
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Old 04-28-2009, 03:47 AM   #12
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This post: as annoying as Deus Ex Machina.
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Old 04-28-2009, 04:27 AM   #13
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This post: as annoying as Deus Ex Machina.
Actually it's even more annoying than DEM because it doesn't tell an interesting story until it's end is reached...
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Old 05-05-2009, 05:15 AM   #14
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I don't think there is such a thing as a 'good deus ex machina'. If it's good then it's not a deus ex machina because it would be something that stems from the story.

I think Star Wars is a good example. It's not a deus ex machina when Han Solo comes to Luke's aid - it's a pivotal character moment for Han and the culmination of the teamwork theme throughout the movie. So while it is a sudden and unexpected event, I wouldn't consider it deus ex machina because it stems from the characters and plot.

Like someone said before, if Superman appeared and saved the day, that would be deus ex machina, but because Han is a great pilot and he and Chewbacca realised that friendship and the 'greater good' are more important than paying off his debt to Jabba, they come to the rescue.
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Old 05-05-2009, 10:43 AM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lemurion View Post
But that doesn't work because while the Eagles do save Frodo and Sam they only come onto the scene after the main story problem has been wrapped up. The good guys have already won by that point - now they're just counting the cost. Also with the Eagles having already saved Gandalf twice in the book it's not without precedence or foreshadowing.
It can certainly be described as taking the easy way out, but it's not a full-fledged DEM.
Hi Lemurion,
Your defintion is correct but it also means
Quote:
  1. In Greek and Roman drama, a god lowered by stage machinery to resolve a plot or extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation.
  2. An unexpected, artificial, or improbable character, device, or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction or drama to resolve a situation or untangle a plot.
  3. A person or event that provides a sudden and unexpected solution to a difficulty.

I thought he was referring to "The Hobbit" in the LOTR where the heroes are saved from the trees by the eagles. Then there is also the little bird that just happen to talk and show up at the right moment to tell the humans where to shoot Smog.... Yea the Hobbit was full of them.

In the end by the definition, the eagles where definitely "Deux Ex Machina" as they only show up when convenient from the story to move along

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Last edited by =X=; 05-05-2009 at 10:45 AM.
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