Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deus ex Machina

Okay. So I'm back from training, at least temporarily. I should hopefully be able to blog and to read blogs every day for the rest of the week. Hopefully.

Anyway, this week I want to talk about what the film and television industries refer to as tropes. My friend Adam Heine from Author's Echo introduced me to TVTropes.org a few weeks ago. I've been fascinated by the immeasurable amount of info there ever since.

Today I want to go over the concept of Deus ex Machina. This plot device, or trope, comes from a Latin phrase that means literally, "god out of the machine." It has its origins in Greek Theatre, when apparently a primitive crane was sometimes used to lower characters playing gods onto the stage. Either way, in plots of fiction, it refers to a sudden and unexpected solution to a problem that had previously seemed unsolvable. As they put it on TVTropes:

If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

In other words, the writer has decided to resort to bullshit, and has pulled a solution to the problem out of his ass. This is a particularly grievous offense when it comes to the pact of trust that should exist between reader and author. If a writer uses this kind of trick, and does not do it subtly, it can completely interrupt that oh so important suspension of disbelief.

According to TVTropes there are four main types of Deus Ex Machina:
  • Total Deus Ex Machina — A plot element that didn't previously exist and has no logical explanation behind it. Let's say the hero has been pummeled to an inch of his life and the villain has regained control of his gun. The hero then finds a magical remote control under a nearby couch that allows him to pause the scene, take the gun away, and shoot the villain.
  • Illogical placement and timing Deus Ex Machina — When something is established and explained in the work, but its use in that situation is jarring and impossible to believe. Building from the example above, let's say that instead of a magical remote, the local militia bursts in and shoots the villain. Maybe it was established earlier that the militia protects the countryside, but for them to somehow divine that there is a fight going on at this isolated farm and to burst in just in time to save the day is a Deus Ex Machina.
  • Cut and paste Deus Ex Machina — When Chekhov's Gun is quick-drawn, but it's done in a clumsy way that makes one realize that the author obviously just couldn't write them out of the situation with what they have, so they went back to some earlier point and put in one or two throwaway lines to set up a victory down the road. From the example above, perhaps the hero randomly decided to put a tiny pistol in one of his pockets and just happened to forget that he had it until now.
  • Fridge Brilliance — When something seems to be a Deus Ex Machina, but really isn't. The writers were just a bit too clever for their own good. To build from the above, let's say that in some early scene the hero intentionally rigged his gun to blow up should it ever be fired and it both fits with his personality and seems like a logical thing he would do. It might seem like a cop-out at first, but one then remembers he's a Technical Pacifist who doesn't like guns and never wants to fire one in his life in spite of his job.
Probably one of the most famous examples of Deus ex Machina, which I hate to go into here, is J.R.R. Tolkien's use of Manwe's Eagles to rescue Frodo and Sam from the destruction of Mount Doom. I hate it because The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories ever, and I don't like to think about anything that might make it less than perfect.

However, there is an interesting debate about all of this, and TVTropes has some very interesting ideas about the subject: [SPOILER ALERT]

J.R.R. Tolkien occasionally uses Giant Eagles to whisk his heroes away from danger. These aren't just at the end of Rings, but show up in The Hobbit to rescue dwarves from burning trees that are surrounded by wolves, to tip the scales in the book's great battle, and in Rings to rescue Gandalf from the roof of the Tower of Orthanc 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. Whether these are a Deus Ex Machina is often debated:

  • 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.
  • The Eagles are Manwë's messengers, so this is a arguably a legitimate case of a true Deus Ex Machina.
  • Bored of the Rings had one of them stamped with "Deus Ex Machina Airlines."
  • Common objections: The Eagles' place in Middle-Earth's greater cosmology that's All There In The Manual, Gandalf being a wizard and getting this sort of thing as a perk, defining Deus Ex Machina to play a crucial role in the quest when, in Rings, the quest was completed on the main characters' own power and getting out of Mordor alive was no part of it.
  • What's most irritating about the Giant Eagles is that they raise serious questions about the story's foundations. Possible objections: Sauron would definitely notice and set up Nazgûl interception and/or tens of thousands of Orcs on the mountain, the Eagles weren't even at the Council of Elrond, Manwë wouldn't send his eagles on a suicide mission, God thinks that defeating evil effortlessly would eventually backfire, Mount Doom is the seat of the greatest power in Middle-Earth and it's uncertain whether anyone could toss away its embodiment there willingly, the Ring corrupts the powerful so that Galadriel and Gandalf refuse to even touch it - and you want to put the thing on Gwahir the Windlord for days on end?!
  • Exactly. The Eagles are beholden to no mortal, and it was only through Gandalf being an Istari spirit closely associated with Manwe that he had any sway over them at all. Clearly just getting Gwaihir to save him from Orthanc was a huge "favor", and its obvious he wouldn't be ordering them around regularly.
  • Tolkien's own argument was that the eagles would never allow themselves to be used as taxis by other species.
  • Speaking of eagles, they're also used at least twice in The Silmarillion: when Fingon rescues Maedhros, and when Beren and Lúthien escape from Angband. Very much deus in machina since the connection between the eagles and Manwë is much more explicit in that book.
Interesting stuff! Anyway, the point is we should all try to avoid using such tropes in our writing. If it must be done, and you've written yourself into a corner, so to speak, at least go back through your work and try to weave the logic for the plot device into the narrative in a way that makes sense. If you don't, it will look like you just pulled a rabbit out of your ass.

BTW, if you, like me, have a hard time pronouncing this phrase, it's said like: Day-oos eks MAH-kin-nuh


Misha Gerrick said...

Ooooh I hate this trope. Mostly because it breaks the one rule in writing that I see as sacrosanct.

Do not underestimate the intelligence of the reader.

P.S. I love tvtropes.org

Karen Baldwin said...

You always have such interesting stuff to share. I'll be checkingout tvtropes.org. Thanks.

Bryan Russell said...

Wait... what? I thought the rabbits always lived in my ass. Aren't they supposed to be there? Can this Deus dude get them out?

Candyland said...

Wow this is good!!! I'm struggling right now with something that I'm trying to make believable with the plot.

Ted Cross said...

Why can't I get someone to swoop in and finish my books for me?

Carolyn Abiad said...

That Deus guy is a pain, huh? I'd try to think of something smart to say, but you've already used up the good words today and I haven't had coffee yet. Glad you're back! :)

Bish Denham said...

But, but, but...I liked the giant eagles. Kind of like the wings of God. (But I get the point, really I do.)

Kelly Polark said...

Very interesting post, Matthew. I hadn't heard of tvtropes nor the four types of Deux Ex Machina.
I hope my books are more brilliance than illogical!

Anne Gallagher said...

In other words, the writer has decided to resort to bullshit and has pulled a solution to the problem out of his ass.

I could not have said it better myself. Perfect definition. Thanks Matt.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I am going to have to check that website out - thanks for the link. Deus ex Machina may be a no-no, but once you realize you've written yourself into a corner, it takes a masterful mind to be able to re-craft the story in order to make the solution make sense.

Do you think it's inexcusable, or just a tool to be used sparingly?

Josin L. McQuein said...

With new writers, I can forgive a bit of Deus Ex (in a first or second draft) as confusing it with a "twist". With established writers, it usually comes off as lazy, or occasionally, an editing mistake. Sometimes cutting a couple of scenes from the middle will strip of the set-up for something crucial later on.

With Greek theatre, you had a situation where people expected their heroes to get into a spot that a mortal couldn't escape. They'd lower a "god" at the last second to zap, kill, transfigure, or otherwise drag their butts out of the fire, even if there had been no deity presence in play before. It was their normal ending, the way a modern audience expects to see logical conflict resolution.

It's excessively annoying because, even if you decide late in the game that you want to give your MC a certain "out", it doesn't take much to go back and seed the story in a few places to make that "out" plausible.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

I learned something new, here. I recognized it, just never knew there was a name for it. I think it's interesting to ponder what Tolkien said. Less is more...use caution.

vic caswell said...

ooh! matt! thanks for explaining this! i've seen the term around, but hadn't looked it up yet. thanks!

Steve MC said...

What Anne said.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Thanks for giving it a name. I recently that that in a book that concluded a series I'd been following. O_o

Very disappointing.

Emily White said...

My favorite endings are the ones where it looks at first glance like the author succumbed to Deus Ex Machina, but when you finish with the scene, you realize the author had been building up to just that little twist all along.

It makes it wonderfully exciting to go back and reread all those seemingly random tidbits that were actually pivotal clues.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Deus Ex Machina is my favorite writerly term OF ALL TIME! I can just say it in my head over and over again. Awesome.
Ahh the eagles in LOTR. There's an animated series on youtube called "How it should have ended" (i think) and they do a play on the whole eagle idea flying them to mordor. It's funny (i'd link it but i don't have youtube access on my work pc. boo)

PK HREZO said...

Good to know there's a name for it. You schooled me today. And I've been guilty of using it in the past when I was a newbie novelist. I think in fantasy stories it's easier to excuse because anything goes. Who's to say the eagles didn't have a sixth sense about Frodo's and Sam's need for rescue? It's been awhile since I've read LOTR so I'll have to go back and review it. It's one of my faves too.

But you bring up an important point. Sometimes we as writers forget we can't just manipulate the story to make something happen. It's why fiction is such an art.

Christina Lee said...

WOWEE-- totally interesting stuff. I hadn't thought of the eagles that way before (so few flaws exist). I am SO having this convo with hubby b/c we watch LOTR all the time over and over!

Chris Phillips said...

i complain about deus ex machina all the time after watching movies and my wife just stares at me. the text book d.e.m. comes from Medea if you ever want to see the worst d.e.m. evar. I like your examples, sometimes it's hard to distinguish it from a plot twist.

Amanda Bonilla said...

Great post! It reminded me of an episode of Family Guy where Chris is talking to the convenience store guy and he's wondering why the eagle just didn't fly Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the very beginning of the story. HAHAH!

Jacqueline Howett said...

Thanks for the lessons in Greek theatre. Some interesting pointers will remain, as already mentioned above. Will check it out.

Unknown said...

Never heard of tv tropes. Thanks! Provocative pointers that served to make me think on my own WIP today.

Nate Wilson said...

Great, just great. Now I have to get rid of the giant eagle saviors in my own novel.

Hmm, maybe if I were to use a large wooden badger...

Charlie Pulsipher said...

This along with a dozen other mistakes are why I stopped watching Heroes early on. A character would magically have a new power that saved the day and then three episodes later forget they had said power. Drove me crazy!
Funny Stuff I Write And Draw

storyqueen said...

This trope reminds me of some kind of Looney Toons battle where Elmer pulls out a gun from nowhere, then Bugs pulls out a cannon from nowhere, then Elmer pulls out a tank and Bugs has a bomb......Kerplewie!

Anyway, it kind of reminds me of playing when I was a kid. We had Deus Ex Machina moments all of the time. Usually the kid who came up with the best ones that we couldn't top won.

Great post.


Jess said...

This post is so interesting! I loved reading about the LOTR Eagles (which always struck me as a little convenient, but he's Tolkien, come on...he invented a language, so I'll forgive the birds). I have to admit, it's tempting to use D.E.M. when you get stuck, but almost impossible to get away with.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No pulling rabbits out of my ass! And despite the explanation, still wonder why Frodo didn't just ride an eagle to Mt. Doom...

Nicole Zoltack said...

tvtropes.com is a landmind of information! I love that site.

mshatch said...

you know I never even thought about the eagles in LOTR until you mentioned it and it did make me feel slightly cheated - until just now when you said how the eagles would never have allowed themselves to be used as a taxi service. I should think not!

great post btw; I often skim over long posts but not this one :)

Steve Abernathy said...

Giant eagles? Ass rabbits?

I read THE LOST SYMBOL at the beach this weekend. Dan Brown's name in French translates to Deus ex Machina.

Laura Pauling said...

So the take away is that I need to add giant eagles when my main character is in trouble? Got it.

DEZMOND said...

what kind of training? Karate training, combat training, secret spy training?

Michael G-G said...

Thanks, Matt. My favorite trope is Deus Ex Maserati.

Old Kitty said...

LOL!!!! I've never laughed out so much reading Dezmond's comments!! LOL!!!! Sorry! LOL!

Anyway!!! I remember the near end of ToyStory 3 - the toys are about to meet their doom and by golly I was crying so much their salvation came in the most unlikeliest of manner but it didn't matter cos then everyone in the cinema just cheered! I think at that point we didn't care if Eagles came and plucked them all up!! LOL!

I'd like to think that if I pulled a stunt like this in words, I'd do it with such panache too!

Take care

Anonymous said...

Dude. The deus ex is one of those things I can't stand when I see it done.

Also, I'm sure you've seen the Youtube vid of how LOTR should have ended...?



Stacy McKitrick said...

Gee - you couldn't put the pronunciation at the beginning of the post? :)

I've heard of the term - never knew what it meant before. Thanks! And it's nice to know I strive not to be guilty of it in my own writing! I have to have things make sense (even if they are paranormal).

Janet Johnson said...

Fascinating post. I had to laugh through that Lord of the Rings tangent. I love that people are so passionate about it.

I think deus ex machina works in that particular book for two reasons: 1) Frodo and Sam were prepared to die and no one wanted that. The readers were looking for a miracle and there we are. And 2) J.R.R. Tolken is only the father of modern fantasy. So yeah, he can do stuff we can't.

But I definitely won't be using it in mine. :)

Lindsay said...

Great post. I didn't know there were four kinds. i know I try not to include it in my writing, but I'm thinking a swooping eagles might be fun. LOL.

Becca said...

I love tvtropes. I could literally spend hours on that site.

And I love Dues ex Machina. Well, not in plots, but the whole concept. That's just me being a literary geek who sat in the front row of English class and soaked up every word.

Kittie Howard said...

Yipes! I wasn't following you either (but am now.) Sometimes my elevator gets stuck :D

Enjoyed your post! A lot!

Unknown said...

Amazing! This is one of the most amazing posts I've read this week! I hadn't heard of this trope before but I know I've seen it before in literature and I know it drives me crazy.

Jemi Fraser said...

I hope you're not trying to convince me that LotR isn't perfect - because it most definitely is! Must be time for a reread... :)

Deniz Bevan said...

Great post! Though I'm not quite sure I understand why the eagles raise questions about the story's foundations. Sauron wouldn't need to guard against them when there are so few of them, compared to all the orcs he's got patrolling the high towers, never mind the Nazgul (so, uh, no chance of flying Frodo or the ring itself to Mount Doom without anyone noticing).
Don't know about sixth sense or Deus Ex Machina, I simply think that the eagles, living above everyone yet still part of the goings on of the age, simply arrive at the battles when it suits them. And if they can help sway the side of good by rescuing Frodo and Sam, why not?

Love your other Deuz Ex Machina examples - magical remote control!

Anonymous said...

This always bugs me!

Great post :-)

Patti said...

Such a great post. I've seen lots of movies where the magical item does something that no one knew about, but saves everyone.

dolorah said...

So that's what that is called. I just call it laziness on the writer's part when I see it.

I'm like you however, I did have to justify the eagles in LOTR. Mostly because they have shown up in his other writings.

Just goes to show your point; if backed into a corner, do it well.


Adam Heine said...

"I've been fascinated by the immeasurable amount of info [at TV Tropes] ever since."

Dude, I'm amazed you found the time to do a blog post ;-)

The real problem with the Eagles (hinted at in the bulleted list, there) is the plot hole they introduce. Namely, why didn't the Eagles just fly Frodo to Mt. Doom in the first place?

Arguments can be made, but since none were addressed at the Council of Rivendell, it remains an official plot hole.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. All the things we need to avoid to make our plots make sense.

Kathryn Rose said...

"Cut and paste Deus Ex Machina" - I love it! And I know exactly what you mean. It's tough to look at LOTR as an example, but it really does fit. I didn't have that reaction to the end of The Return of the King the first time I read it, (I was probably too young to notice it) but I do remember a few people telling me they had problems with that ending.

Thanks for the post! Lots of great thoughts here. :)

Deniz Bevan said...

"Arguments can be made, but since none were addressed at the Council of Rivendell, it remains an official plot hole."
Are we sure about this, guys? Maybe it was there at one point. I'll check the History of Middle Earth and see if it was in a draft...

Adam Heine said...

I'd be interested to see what you find out, Deniz.

Eric W. Trant said...

Been a while since I stepped into your Q-dom (kingdom, get it?). I need to trudge through your archives...

I always called the Day-oos in English as this: Acts of Extreme Convenience.

One of my least-favorite Day-oos (Acts of Extreme Convenience) is when the writer simply kills off the protag in order to stop the story. Now, if death is the end purpose, such as "American Beauty" or "Donny Darko" or most war movies, then I appreciate the death sentence.

But if it's a story that simply needs a stopping point, and so the dies the protag, THE END, that bugs me. I'm having a hard time thinking of a good example so I'll leave that up to the reader. "Steel Magnolias" comes to mind, though it isn't the best example.

Help me out here!

That said, it's hard not to kill your protag to end the story. It's such a clean ending!

But also it's an Act of Extreme Convenience for the writer, that the protag just ~happened~ to get hit by a bus, THE END, and how tragic, how tragic, how tragic.

Ah, "My Girl," how about that one! Writer gets bored and stuck after 70k words, and so how about this rewrite: kill off the daughter!



It's this reason alone that I've never read or watched "My Girl," since I know I'd have a hard time respecting the author's choice for truncating the story.

- Eric

Deniz Bevan said...

Hi All,

I looked through a couple of the books of the History of Middle Earth. It seems the eagles were not considered at the Council, at least insofar as in drafts recorded by Christopher Tolkien in the History.

I had an idea that maybe Frodo asked Gandalf about them in draft versions of his talk with Gandalf at the start, but it seems not. He does ask similar questions though, and perhaps the discussion concerning Bombadil at the Council was considered enough. That is, repeating the same sorts of thoughts with regard to the eagles might have been repetitive and Tolkien probably left it to the reader to deduce that their carrying the ring to Mordor was not possible. I think we've covered that already; the sky over Mordor was watched; there'd be no way to approach the eagles up in the Misty Mountains without sending out an army to cover their approach and fight the orcs; and so on.

On the whole, though, they seem less like a deus ex machina than an author's theme, as they have a tendency to come in for rescues – of Beren and Luthien at Angband, for instance, or of the king's body before the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and especially of Gandalf, both at the peak of Zirakzigil and at Orthanc (I didn't look up the drafts for Gandalf's two "eagle trips"). Though in each case, it was the eagles' own watchfulness (which is mentioned often enough) that brought them there at the right time. Also, they are – though they hold themselves aloof – consistently on the side of the wizards and so on, cf their part in the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit.

In a synopsis/plotting sheet, Tolkien wrote that Frodo and Sam "are cut off. Gandalf, of course, now knows that Frodo has succeeded and the Ring has perished. He sends Gwaihir the Eagle to see what is happening. Some of the eagles fall withered by flame? But Gwaihir sweeps down and carries off Sam and Frodo back to Gandalf, Aragorn, etc. Joy at the reunion – especially of Merry and Pippin?"

In another outline he wrote "Gandalf bids Gwaihir fly swiftly to Orodruin."

It seems, then, that their part was always a given. Don't forget that it was also the eagles who took it upon themselves to bear the good tidings to Minas Tirith – so it seems that overall, they do what they can, and since they're the only ones that can fly, their help comes in that form often.

And now that I've been thoroughly distracted by The Notion Club Papers and the Lost Road, drafts of which are also in the History, and which read like a compendium of everything I love about Tolkien – philology, Englishness, Between the Wars, history, language, etc. – I have to get back to editing my own story [g]

I leave you with these great lines from the minutes of the Notion Club:

"'If you haven't got a horn, fill me a mug! For I have done both Aelfwine's part and Treowine's, and it is thirsty work, a minstrel's.'

Markison handed him a pewter tankard full. 'Beo thu blithe aet thisse beorthege!' he said, for ancient English is only one of the innumerable things he knows.

Lowdham drained the tankard at a draught. And so ended the sixty-ninth night of the Notion Club."

Adam Heine said...

Wow, Deniz, thanks for all that info! You are quite the Tolkien scholar :-)

Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks Adam! It's a long-time obsession :-)