16 Sep 2017

Writing Series: Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Deus ex Machina

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Deus ex Machina Tends to Turn Off Readers

Good writing means putting your characters through an adventure of some kind which is interesting and believable to your readers. The adventure could be as simple as a young boy crossing the street for the first time, or as complex as the nine members of the fellowship of the ring as they travel through Middle Earth. Sometimes the adventure is solving a mystery, mastering a puzzle, learning something new or stopping a group of criminals or terrorists or Soviet spies.

Good writing presents a story so that readers maintain interest from the first page to the last. Events proceed in a logical (or sometimes illogical) manner through a series of challenges, victories and defeats, until the final challenge is overcome. In most books, the protagonist wins, although sometimes the antagonist is the victor.

In the very best stories, the characters resolve the problems they encounter either by themselves or with the help of other characters or circumstances. That’s one of the things that makes the Godfather series (1 and 2 at least) such good movies. Everything that happens is the result of the actions of the characters or are understandable from the events in the story. Sure, there are surprises, but clues are dropped along the way, foreshadowing what comes later in each movie. The reader can and should be surprised, but the actions that take place must make sense within the confines of the fictional world.

An important part of any story telling is the Suspension of Disbelief. Star Trek, for example, is filled with technology that is, by the standards of modern science, impossible. Warp drives and transporters, for example, do not exist; However, by being presented within the stories as if the characters understand their use, viewers suspend their disbelief and accept these devices without detailed explanations and regardless of scientific accuracy.

In a further example, the Godfather movies (and the books) present a fictional world of Mafia honor and intrigue that does not exist in the real world. However, the story is presented so well that everything is accepted by the audience as if it were real. In fact, many who have watched the movies come away believing they just viewed a fictionalization of real events and people.

One form of bad writing that destroys the suspension of disbelief is called deus ex machina, which, in it’s original Greek form, literally means “a god from a machine”. In ancient Greek and Roman plays, it was common for a god to appear out of the blue to resolve all the problems that the hero was having, neatly tying up any loose ends.

Deus ex machina is bad writing, as you can see from the definition:

a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.Merriam-Webster

Deus ex machina usually is the result of a writer who has written the story into a place where it cannot be resolved within the confines and rules of the story and world. Whenever you see Superman catching Lois Lane after she falls off a building, for example, you’ve just seen deus ex machina.

Let’s look over a few examples.

Lord of the Rings – In this book (and movie) the rescue of Gandalf by the Eagles when he was trapped on top of the Tower of Orthanc in Isengard by Saruman is a classic deus ex machina, as is the similar rescue of Sam and Frodo from the lava by the Eagles after dropping the ring into Mount Doom. In both instances, the characters found themselves in situations where there was no way out – the author could not resolve their dilemma and was forced to use an awkward contrivance, the Eagles, to solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I first read Lord of the Rings way back in the 1970s when I was in high school, and enjoyed the books and the movies immensely. I’ve read the whole trilogy at least two dozen times, and seen the movies all the way through on over a dozen instances. Lord of the Rings is my favorite book (treating the trilogy as a single book) of all time.

That being said, both instances of the Eagles performing a rescue produces a “wtf?” moment every time I read or view it.

These two scenes would have been far better if the characters had worked out a solution to the problems themselves. Let’s look at when Gandalf is held captive. He’s one of the most powerful wizards that exist. Later in the story he defeats a Balrog, for crying out loud, so you know he’s got real power. Yet for some reason he has to depend on a random sighting by an Eagle to escape from the top of a building?

As far as the Eagles rescuing Sam and Frodo, the problem is the Eagles were not part of the story to that point, except briefly to rescue Gandalf, . Mordor was enemy territory, so it’s a stretch to say they were flying over keeping a look out for.something to happen. If the Eagles had been part of the story, perhaps present at the meeting of the fellowship, the rescue would have made more sense. As it was, they appeared out of nowhere in a place they had no right to be without a reason to be there, which is a classic deus ex machina.

War of the Worlds – In the movies, the book, and the radio show, the aliens are destroying humankind. In fact, humanity is being exterminated, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Everything fails, including attacking them with a nuclear warhead. Humans are clearly doomed. Suddenly, the aliens all die from an Earth disease, and, just like that, the story is over and humans are saved.

What’s wrong with this ending? There’s no preparation to the audience, no clues, no foreshadowing of any sort. The story just ends when the aliens all die from Earth diseases. Unfortunately, this makes the whole thing kind of pointless. Nothing done by the hero’s of the story had any bearing on it’s resolution – nothing that the hero does matters in the least. This makes the whole story pointless because you could take the hero out of the picture entirely and the ending would be exactly the same.

Star Trek – All four (to date) of the Star Trek series and most of the movies are jam packed with examples of deus ex machina, as well as many other plot contrivances that serve to pierce the audiences suspension of disbelief. Everyone is going to die in 5 seconds, and the god-like Q being snaps its fingers and, well, everyone is suddenly safe and happy again; Jordi, out of the blue, comes up with a super-something or other that rescues the Enterprise from certain doom with less than a minute on the countdown clock; in fact, the list is almost endless.

Each of these is poor storytelling. If a story gets to a point where the only way out is an “act of god”, then the story is probably not worth telling.

Comic Books – Comic books and comic book movies are generally one long series of deus ex machina events. Daredevil is about to be killed,but he is rescued out of the blue by Wonder Woman, and then the two of them are fighting for their lives and Iron Man, who just happens to be in the area, saves their lives. Characters even die, only to be resurrected by some contrived deus ex machina in a later part of the series.

Sometimes deus ex machina works, as in The Defector, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ending is not a deus ex machina by strict definition because subtle clues are dropped at several points in the story. These set you up for the sudden appearance of the Klingon warships at the end to save the day.  It’s perfectly okay (and even desired) to surprise your reader as long as the story supports it.

What’s the problem with all this? So what if deus ex machina is bad writing! Isn’t it enough that Lord of the Rings, War of the Worlds and Star Trek are loved by millions? After all, these three stories combined have made literally billions of dollars between them. So who cares if their writing is weak in places?

The point of this essay is you, as a writer, can do much better. You can write stories without deus ex machina because you don’t have to plot your characters into situations where they cannot escape without help from god-life beings or in ways that cause your readers to suspend their disbelief. In other words, always ensure there’s some way that your characters can legitimately get out on their own without having to be suddenly rescued in ways that make no sense at all. Your story must support the surprise twist or the readers will lose their suspension of disbelief, which weakens your narrative.

You are the writer, and your world is under your control. You create the situations and scenarios, so write them in such as way as to avoid deus ex machina. Your readers will get a better story because of it, and you will feel better about your creation.

 

Write in the comments some examples of deus ex machina that you have seen.

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Jonathan Williams

Well done. I couldn’t agree more with your thesis and examples. I have no nits to pick re: LOR or Star Trek, both sacred cows of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, respectively (hence the reactions you’ve gotten so far). I have, however, PM’d you about a couple other nits I have to pick with your post, so be on the lookout for my message.

Richard Finney

Mr. Lowe, with all due respect, I’m not sure your definition of DEXMachia, and the way you define it to support your article is the way that the term is classically understood regarding the art and craft of storytelling. For example, your LOR summary doesn’t feel consistent at all with the generally accepted understanding of the DEXMachina term. You may not like the climax of how Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam escape death, but the means that lead to their survival is totally set up in the context of the script story, and which is also depicted on screen. This reason… Read more »

Stuart Herring

I have an idea to offer, and a nit to pick. (1) idea: Remember that the Eagles were employed for rescue in _The Hobbit_, based on their existing friendship with Gandalf. (And their great size was of course mentioned too.) True, this is not a setup for people who had not read the earlier work before experiencing LotR in book or film form, but I suspect that such people are fairly few. (2) nitpick: Please be even more careful with your punctuation, good sir. Plurals (such as ‘Ents’) are not formed with apostrophes; neither is the possessive form of ‘it’… Read more »

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