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Deus ex Machina Always a Bad Thing? (1 Viewer)

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Gamer_2k4

WF Veterans
The concept of a deus ex machina ("god out of the machine") often has a negative connotation, as it can be seen by as a tool by lazy writers to solve a problem without a proper solution. I got to thinking about it with my current story, which uses the device almost literally - the protagonists stumble upon a wrecked spaceship and interact with the still-running central computer system, which helps and guides them along. I feel it's a reasonable occurrence in the context of the story, and in fact that interaction continues over several chapters and drives the plot fairly substantially.

But I'm worried the initial contact may be jarring to readers; it's a bit of a setting and theme shift for the story, and there it DOES follow the traditional definition, providing immediate aid where it would otherwise be impossible. Is this a problem, or is it something most readers (particularly readers of science fiction, which my story is) would be accepting of?
 
Not every surprising, fortunate plot turn is a deus ex machina. Not every sudden intervention of the supernatural (or technological in your case) is a deus ex machina. What makes a deus ex machina bad is that it appears contrived, like it was invented by the author because they wrote themselves into a corner and didn't know how to resolve their plot. That doesn't sound like what you're describing. If you're concerned about it appearing contrived, provide a few hints earlier in the story to set it up. I think of the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie -- there's a sudden supernatural intervention, but it doesn't feel contrived because of the little hints throughout the movie (like when the Nazi eagle on the crate holding the Ark crumbles to ash).
 

apocalypsegal

Senior Member
What makes a deus ex machina bad is that it appears contrived,

Exactly. When a solution just appears, without anything making it seem logical, with no prior layering that explains it, then it's deus ex machina. Readers will hate you for it, your agent may drop you, and you'll get a bad name among all the publishing houses.

Or not. But it's still a bad idea. Make the characters work for a solution, make them solve the problem in a way the reader will accept.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
The first book in my Extinction series (Departure) had a twist at the end - some might argue that it was a deus ex machina, BUT, from practically the first page I left a trail of bread crumbs and hints throughout the story. No one has complained, so I guess it turned out ok.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
the protagonists stumble upon a wrecked spaceship and interact with the still-running central computer system, which helps and guides them along.
This doesn't sound anything like a deus ex machina ... unless your characters are at death's door and there's no reason for them to find a spaceship. It's not unreasonable for a spaceship to have a computer system, even AI. That ground is well broken.

A surprise of good fortune which is well within the bounds of already discussed capabilities is fair play. Readers expect to be surprised by clever use of resources. It's best to expose all the capabilities beforehand, but some can be brief mentions in a way that seemingly minimizes their importance, just as you would clues in a mystery. Since authors tend to love using examples from their own work ;-), I'll mention that my last novel has a rescue the MC refers to as a "demon ex machina". However, every device used in the rescue was previously displayed, discussed, or in process. It would have been possible, though unlikely, for the reader to devise the plan. But they won't, because at the time, events are moving too fast and the reader is concentrated on the right hand while the rescue comes from the left hand.
 

Joker

Senior Member

Also, I couldn't help but think of this scene from the first Spongebob movie for some reason. I think it's because the rules of writing comedy are so radically different than any other genre. The only goal of comedy is to make you laugh. Anything else is gravy.
 

ironpony

Senior Member
I guess it depends on what counts as a deus ex machina. One of my favorite movies, No Way Out (1987), is a suspense thriller.... I am going to spoil the ending, and just giving a warning, just in a case...

SPOILER

The main character is leading an investigation of a murder, which he has been framed for, he finds out, and is trying to clear his name, while doding the framers who want him to dead before he can. One of the detectives investigating the murder, finds a piece of evidence in his car, that was in an evidence bag, from the day they put all the bagged evidence in a car to transport. This one bag of evidence, fell under the car seat and he missed checking it in as a result, and didn't find it till the third act, and turned it over to the main character for third act, and he is able to use it clear his name.

I like the movie does this count as a deus ex machina? There is still a third act to go and still a few more obstacles to go through in the third act, but does it count?
 
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