Screenwriting 101: Deus Ex Machina or (How to Not Stick the Landing)

Like the world’s most ambitious plate spinner, the responsible writer is bound by a seemingly never-ending list of details. So tricky is the balancing act that to let a single one slide is to risk bringing the whole thing tumbling down. And the greatest, most sinister threat of all is Deus Ex Machina. A well-known expression in the writers’ world (or at least it should be), Deus Ex Machine appears us at our most vulnerable, promising quick and easy solutions to incredibly complex equations. 

This phrase is a Latin calque from the Greek “ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός”, translating roughly into “god from the machine”. For our purposes, the term originally referred to a mechanical contraption that would appear towards the end of a play – shepherding an actor representing a God onto the stage at just the right moment. For instance, a crane that would lower the actor from above just as a god would descend from the skies.  

The appearance of a God was usually the playwrights way of resolving a somewhat hopeless situation in a relatively speedy fashion. After all,  given the almighty nature of the divine, who are we, the audience, to ask questions? In screenplay terms, the phrase functions in a mostly similar, with Deus Ex Machina usually rearing its ugly head towards the end of the third act as a convenient plot device that is almost always contrived and never satisfying.

It’s a “tool” of sorts whose effectiveness lies in solving the unsolvable or climbing the unclimbable, especially when we lack the page count to write our way out of the corner we forced ourselves into in the first place. Deus Ex Machina is triggered by the need to ‘solve’ a situation by senseless means foreign to the world we’ve created. In short, it opens a door that shouldn’t exist. It makes things easy – too easy. Not just for the characters, but, most importantly, for the writer. 

A few examples of Deus Ex Machina include: 

  • The revelatory appearance of a new character at just the right moment
  • Divine intervention 
  • New/Unknown powers 
  • Conveniently withheld abilities 
  • A new event 
  • A new object 
  • An unpredictable (unreasonable) change in character behavior or script logic

The real problem is that we risk our credibility and the credibility of the story we’re telling. More than that, it it insults the intelligence of the reader or the audience. The result is almost always disastrous because we are telling people right at the finish line that what we showed them before did not really matter.

For example: 

1. We have a large family fighting over an inheritance and nobody is willing to give in.   

2. As we reach the climax, our characters have more or less equal viability to demand most of the properties and money.  

3. We want to create tension and keep the outcome a mystery for as long as possible, so we haven’t given the two characters that we will favor, any real advantages over the rest of them.  

4. So we come up with this idea where a recently found letter from an unknown relative solves all the problems. According to this letter, it turns out that more than half of the family has no right to claim the inheritance for whatever reason.  

5. Unexpectedly, the three remaining characters that we won’t favor are forced to abandon the legal process. 

6. Our two chosen characters receive all of what they wanted and perhaps even more. 

That surprising letter written by an unknown relative is Deus Ex Machina in all its glory. It’s a cheap, sudden resolution, seemingly out of nowhere. And if a reader is left wondering where a particular resolution came from, the ending of your story is unlikely to ring true.

Still, it’s important to make a distinction: let’s not confuse Deus Ex Machina with accidental events in a story, coincidences, or contrivances that can lead the plot in particular ways. We all know that we could be at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time; but to create this “coincidence” in order to solve a problem and help your character in crisis is a completely different situation. Characters should work for their objectives and thus, earn their victories. 

What can we do to avoid the use of this device then? We need to avoid easy outs for the characters as much as possible and instead, use the ‘planting’ and ‘pay-off’ technique in which we, as writers, set up the logic of what may be construed later on as a ‘coincidence’. We plant something that will eventually show its result or reward; it doesn’t have to be too obvious so it can be done even in a subtle way, for example, in the ACT I. 

In conclusion, we need to be very careful when thinking about possible solutions for our stories. We are all vulnerable to Deus Ex Machina, from novice to professional writers but the result is the same: the common effect of these miraculous escapes leave the readers hanging, unable to understand what just happened and why it happened. Because Deus Ex Maquina doesn’t show consistency or a logical approach (cause-effect even in its slightest form), the audience can perceive this as a betrayal. As Karl Iglesias states in his Writing for Emotional Impact book, “They insult the reader and are emotionally unsatisfying”; this tool is often seen as what a lazy writer would resort to.  

That’s why I mentioned responsibility in the first place. As writers, we owe it to our audience to respect the integrity of our work – from the worlds we work so hard to create, to the characters that populate them.