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Deus Ex Machinas

Two different people emailed me on Friday and asked me what a Deus Ex Machina was ‘cos apparently they’d both had feedback from course tutors saying they had one in their scripts and they were too embarrassed to say they hadn’t a fig what that tutor was talking about. Jinx or what! Now they are both under my power, *evil laugh*. However, because I am feeling charitable, before I make them dance down the street in their underwear, here is my article from the old blog* that I wrote last year.
I’ve said before that my lad is a chip off the old block; people always exclaim over how like me he looks (poor bugger) and he loves to write stories. This is one he brought home from school the other day:


One day there was a weasel and a crab and they were always fighting. They were fighting on a cliff. They both fell off the cliff. When they woke up from the big fight, the weasel was so mental he bit the crab’s leg off and flesh was flying everywhere. Then the crab snipped the weasel’s tail off. Then they got taken to the vet and became the best of friends.

“Flesh was flying everywhere”
– what did I tell you?? A horror writer in the making, obviously. However, in this story is what is known as a Deus Ex Machina. In other words, the participants in this story are conveniently taken OUT of the story by persons unknown (whomever took them to the vet.) Also, considering they were so “mental” they were carving chunks out of each other, five seconds later they’re bezzie mates.

Now, my son is only eight. I wouldn’t expect him to conclude his stories with the finesse of Roald Dahl. This is something that will come with maturity, the reading of more books and the writing of more stories. This article is not about how HE shouldn’t use the dreaded Deus Ex Machina.

No – it’s about you.

Yes! You there! Oi!

I’ve read more scripts in the last few weeks with Deus Ex Machinas than I have in the last year previous. Not even joking. What’s going on, Spec Writers? Characters are having their lives tied up in knots…Only for something or someone to remove them from the story, just like that.

Not all of them are as obvious as my son’s idea of the invisible person taking the crab and the weasel to the vet, but they’re still there. I’ve had Sci-Fis with conveniently-placed programmes, viruses or buttons that “eject” characters out of computer games and space ships. I’ve had horrors and action-adventures that have police and rescuers turning up out of the blue (“I was just passing…” Argh!), even though our protagonist has had no phone or ways of contacting the outside world. I’ve had thrillers and comedies where people have to solve a mystery or task, only to be told it was really an initiation task or a joke all along.


Deus Ex Machinas just don’t cut it in screenwriting. Sometimes, you can write them entirely by accident; I accept that. I’ve done it myself. In THY WILL BE DONE I had a character whose function was *supposed* to be a clue to the rest of the whole story; in reality, she was a Deus Ex Machina – she pulled another character OUT of the story, in effect. This undermined my script, so she had to go. Whammo: she was gone. You have to keep on your toes when it comes to the Deus Ex Machina, they can be sneaky. It was acceptable in Greek Times, when Zeus etc would come down and sort the characters’ lives out. It’s notacceptable now – whether it’s a God, a computer programme or in my case, a teenage prostitute.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some comedies use Deus Ex Machinas on purpose and this can work well. Anyone who watched Dodgeball for example would have seen the actual words DEUS EX MACHINA carved on the money chest at the end – and yes, the money was a Deus Ex Machinas to the plot. The Simpsons use Deus Ex Machinas constantly in this ironic way, the most notable time in my mind being Willie’s video tape and admission that “Every single person in Scotland does it!” when he reveals he taped Homer and The Babysitter and the infamous gummy Venus De Milo. However, using irony in this fashion requires the ultimate understanding of what a Deus Ex Machinas is: one can only subvert expectations and genres etc with knowledge and, preferably, experience.

Basically, there are no short cuts to story resolution. Think of your story as a well constructed house. A Deus Ex Machina is equivalent to not bothering putting the roof on. It makes a draught. Readers roll their eyes and not believe in your story or craft. You must construct your end with as much thought and care as your beginning and middle. Don’t just tie up all the loose ends in one go with something “convenient”.

Of course, loads of films have Deus Ex Machinas – those bad, non-ironic ones – in. Which ones can you think of?
* Remember – I’m cancelling AOL when I move, so the old blog will probably disappear. If there’s an article on there you’d like to see here, do as Lianne did and request I repost! Email me.

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