Sometimes authors write themselves into a corner – they’ve created an extremely suspenseful story but have failed to provide clues that would allow the main character to resolve the tale’s central problem. They then introduce a miraculous solution to an otherwise apparently insoluble problem.
This contrivance is called a deus ex machina. The term comes from ancient Greek tragedy in which a machine – usually a crane – brought a god (“deus” is Latin for “god”) to the stage at the play’s end to resolve the problem for the main character.
A good example of a deus ex machina in modern literature is the ending of William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies.” As the character Ralphie and the other children face death, a naval ship passing by spots them; an officer comes ashore and saves them. Ralphie and the children don’t solve their problem; instead, the naval officer removes their problem. Golding himself called the ending a “gimmick.”
You should avoid deus ex machina endings in your stories. In addition to diminishing the suspension of disbelief, most readers will feel cheated by it. An intriguing main character and the difficult decision he must make to resolve the problem is what hooked the reader, after all. Failing to allow the main character to make that decision really fails to adequately end the story.
Fixing a deus ex machine ending often requires that the author rewrite or add various elements to the story. Clues should appear in the story about how the main character might resolve the central problem. An evolution that character’s thinking that allows him to put together those clues and to make the difficult decision also should occur.
Of course, sometimes the deus ex machine is worth keeping in a story, especially if it’s a comedy. In such stories, the reader will accept that incredibly wacky and unlikely events occur, so long as they’re humorous. For example, in the movie “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” the main character Brian is saved by a passing alien spaceship.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.