The literary term that is the topic of this lesson is deus ex machina
, and it literally means “god from the machine,” but although it references ‘god,’ it is not a faith-related term, nor is it a sacrilegious one. You can look up its origins online—I’m more interested in its meaning for fiction writers. Don't worry about the Latin, though--you can just use the phrase "magic ending" while you're reading through this (thanks for the idea, Jo).Deus ex machina
occurs when a writer introduces a character, object, or event near the end of the story that conveniently solves the problem that is facing the main character, without any foreshadowing.
This is generally thought of as a bad thing. It is a cop-out—a way to tie everything up in a neat little bundle that doesn’t allow the character to work through his or her own solution. Readers then feel let down—a little bit cheated out of a satisfactory struggle and resolution.
It is sometimes tempting to use a deus ex machina
when we’ve written ourselves into a corner, with the 750th word just around the bend and an ending desperately needed.
I mentioned in my previous lesson (on “good endings”) that you should avoid the “it was only a dream” scenario. This is a sort of deus ex machina
. Similar endings that Christian writers are particularly prone to write include the introduction of a mysterious angelic visitor, or some other miraculous intervention.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m writing this from a literary point of view, not a theological one. I believe in both angels and miracles, and have experienced both personally. In fact, sometimes a story with an angel or a miracle simply needs to be written. If that is the case with you, certainly write one.
Be aware, though, that—for example, if you have a person with a spinal cord injury who is miraculously cured—people who have been in the same circumstances but have not experienced their own miracle may feel saddened or (as has sometimes happened, unfortunately) judged.
Stepping down off that particular soapbox—I’ll reiterate now that good writers don’t take shortcuts. If you’ve written a story in which Sharon is in utter poverty and about to be put out on the street unless she gets the rent money, don’t have a lawyer call her in the last paragraph with an inheritance from Uncle Jack’s will.
At the very least, introduce Uncle Jack earlier in the story, and give him a plausible reason to be there.
As you can imagine, there’s a balancing point between “I don’t want to have a deus ex machina” and “I want to have a twist ending.” The key is to provide the reader with a little bit of foreshadowing. If Gloria’s orange scarf is going to be the one thing that reunites her with her long-lost mother, be sure to have her choose that scarf in an early paragraph. There were many times when I was writing for the challenge when I’d go back to an early paragraph and insert a person or an object that would become significant later. You don’t have to go overboard (see the SCARF? She’s wearing THAT SCARF now. Now she’s draping it on a chair, and now someone’s giving her a random compliment about THAT SCARF…). Just drop the hint, and move on.
Here’s your exercise. Here’s
a link to an old challenge entry of mine. Read all but the last two paragraphs—stop when you read “No, sweetie. Mama’s not mad.” Then come back here and read this new ending, one that contains a deus ex machina.Just then, Jim walks into Maggie’s room, an unreadable look in his eyes and the phone in his hand. He sits beside me and rests his head on my shoulder.
“Jim? What is it?”
He looks at the phone as if it is totally unfamiliar to him. “It’s Dr. Conrad’s office. They mixed up your test results with another woman’s.” He stops, and a sob chokes his next words. “You’re pregnant.”
Got that? Now go back and read the “real” ending.
Now certainly there will be some people who prefer the “happier” ending, but from a literary point of view, it’s a cheat. Too convenient, too neat. Life isn’t generally like that.
Easy homework this week:HOMEWORK:
Post a comment or a question about this week’s lesson.
OR Find a story of yours that used a deus ex machina and link to it. Tell what a different ending could have been.