Monday, November 8, 2010

Deus ex Machina

Did you ever study Latin in school? I took two years, and wish I remembered more than I do. But recently I had reason to revisit a Latin term, deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina: "a plot device that usually involves a last  minute appearance by a character who saves the day, or a sudden event that conveniently resolves the plot." The phrase comes from ancient Greek theater, where seemingly insolvable situations were conveniently solved by 'dropping a god' on to the stage--often literally dropping the actor by way of an elaborate crane. Hence the meaning, "god from the machine."

My deus ex machina was a key that seemed to drop from the sky on a recent day when we got locked out of the house. How convenient, huh? Hubby and I had started out on a walk together, a Saturday morning tradition. Usually, since we part ways at a point and I return home while he goes a longer route, he makes sure I have the key. But this time neither of us thought to make the exchange--and he took off with said key in his pocket.

Good thing the day was warm. Once I realized the oversight, I also realized I might have a long wait. So, after checking to see if any door had been mistakenly left unlocked--no such luck--I decided to make the best of the situation. So I sat on my garden bench for a bit, enjoying just being outside. I did deep-breathing exercises. I tried to make myself useful by moving flower pots that need to be stored inside for the winter closer to the house.

Time crawled, so I strolled through the backyard. I peeked through broken windows in the neighbor's old barn next door, a barn that fell into disrepair years ago. I picked stickers off my pant legs that had hitched a ride. I headed back to the bench. That's when I looked down and...found a key, right smackdab in the flower bed, one I had never seen before. Now where did that come from? But then the thought hit me, do you suppose...? I hurried to the door to see if the key would get me in the house.

Of course it didn't. But if it had, it would have been a perfect example of a deus ex machina, an easy resolution to my problem--and obviously an example of what we don't want to do in our stories. Where's the action in a resolution so easy, the conflict, the character's need to resolve his problem?

Some examples of this unwelcome plot device, according to Bright Hub, include:
  • A character waking up and realizing it was "all a dream"
  • A hero turning up just in time to save everyone
  • A sudden discovery of a super power or magical ability that solves all the plot problems
  • A sudden dramatic natural even, such as an earthquake or fire
  • A character who magically returns from the dead.
Interesting stuff here. Other helpful links on the subject include Novel-Writing-Help, and Citizendium.

A key and a bit of Latin illuminated a story problem for me. How about you--any helps lately from Latin? Or any deus ex machinas that you've stumbled upon?


  1. Beautiful translation and usage. :O)

  2. Hi Kenda..unfortunately I have never used Deus ex machina, but I like the idea. It may end up in one of my manuscripts or stories. :)

    Too bad about you getting locked out of the house.

  3. Loved this post. I didn't know the meaning of Deux ex machina even though I took three years of high school Latin. I have resorted to this in my stories, good to know it has a name :)

  4. I enjoyed the explanation of Deux ex machina. I don't think I've used that device. (I know editors don't like it!) I hope you didn't have to wait very long to get back into your house.

    Gee, a nice Deux ex machina would have been if your hubby forgot something and had to come back early! :-)

  5. Diane, Rachna, and Catherine--thanks for dropping in. Hope you enjoyed reading about deus ex machina as much as I did researching it! I'll certainly be looking out for such endings in my readings, to see if the author took the easy way out :-)

    And nice to meet you Elizabeth. Yep, hubby coming back early would have been a great deux ex machina--but then maybe I wouldn't have gotten a story, or a post, out of the experience! I'm hopping over to your place now, see you there...

  6. Great post, Kenda. I'm always checking to make sure something hasn't "fallen from the sky" in my novels because it just seems too convenient. But it's so cool when it happens in real life!

  7. I blogged about this too, except I initially spelled it like it was bad French instead of Latin: Deux ex machina. Oops.
    The Deus is interesting but often disappoints me when I read it, especially now that i know that it is.
    Great post!

  8. lol, I love that list especially someone unexpectantly coming back from the dead. I've done that one!!!