Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dios ex Machina

I don't know why I've been thinking about this lately, but I have.

Dios ex machina: According to wikipedia -
"god out of the machine"; is a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

I guess it comes from those ancient Greek plays where a god is suddenly introduced to resolve the plot.

Some authors have used this and it has worked out okay for them. Examples: Lord of the Flies, when the wild kids are somewhat randomly rescued by the Naval Officer. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when the Phoenix swoops in and saves them from the collapsing basilisk chamber. Or perhaps the most famous, The Return of the King, when the eagles fly in and rescue Sam and Frodo from the burning mountainside.

Sometimes it works, usually it doesn't. Who hasn't wondered why Frodo didn't simply fly on an eagle and drop the ring into Mt. Doom in the first place and cut out 9/10ths of the book(s)?

Most often it's called "Writer Cop Out."

Anyway, it gives us writers pause to make sure everything that happens in our story happens for a reason and doesn't feel contrived. All plot points must flow in a logical chain of events that makes sense based on our characters and their reasoning and choices.

The guy over at Moody Writing has written a few good posts on this lately: here and here.

Any other good examples of this?
Any good tips on avoiding it?


  1. I think that when it's done right, the reader doesn't feel cheated. In the examples you mentioned, I think it worked perfectly for the story. In fact, at the time I was reading the Chamber of Secrets, I didn't feel like the Phoenix was saving the day, I thought Harry had done everything that was in his power already.
    And I love the scene in which the eagles rescue Frodo and Sam.

    On the other hand, when I read the Lovely Bones (why? Why!!!), I hated the end because the resolution comes from a coincidence (sorry about the spoiler). No, more than a coincidence, it was a random event. I felt like I had read the book for nothing. Completely cheated.

    How to avoid it? Make your main character the hero/ine of your story. Make them sacrifice something, or everything. I know it's easier said than done (or written).

  2. @Yamile, I agree with you. The Lovely Bones is one book I wish I could unread.

    And for the record, I also loved The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter!

  3. Oh my...Yes we all wonder why the Eagles just didn't take Frodo to Mount Doom. OH well...Tolkien's tale is all the funner when people can't fly.

  4. It's like this one b movie I have. The heroes need to go deep into the jungle to destroy the giant wasp-like monsters, facing many dangers and a lot of stock footage along the way. Suspense builds (or is supposed to, anyway) as they get closer to their goal. Then, when they are almost there, a stock footage volcano suddenly erupts, destroying the creatures so the heroes don't have to, rendering the entire journey meaningless.

  5. @Scott, That sounds really painful. You gotta love the B movies, though.

    It reminds me of when my third son was born, and our oldest son wanted to name him Waspo.

  6. True. But don't we all keep our fingers crossed that someone, somewhere will swoop in at the last moment and save us?

  7. The Lovely Bones is my least favorite book of all time, hands down.
    I never knew this plot device had a name, but now that I'm thinking about it it seems like it happens all the time. Maybe 10 or 20 times in Twilight alone (Jacob imprinting on the the baby and finally ending the love triangle).
    Maybe the key is to not overuse it? And to have the main character go through trials that he has to work his way out of first. Poor Frodo had been through thousands of pages of beastly stuff, maybe that's why the reader is relived to see him finally catch a break. Same for Chamber of Secrets. They had to do a lot of their own sleuthing (even if they were a bit slow about it), it seemed like they had earned the phoenix.
    It does seem like a thing you have to watch out for. I like Yamile's comment as well. Sometimes the main character just has to make a sacrifice.

  8. @Brooke, We keep our fingers crossed that the handsome knight in shining armor will swoop in and rescue us! :)

    @Michelle, Good point about catching a break. Sometimes our heroes really need it. Especially Frodo, because the eagles didn't come until after he had endured and succeeded in his trials. Same with Harry Potter. And that's the important part--the hero has to earn his title of Hero.