All About The Deus Ex Machina
So, the Deus Ex Machina. What is it? Well to know a word or phrase is to be able to define a word or phrase (as my English teacher always used to say!). So here is the dictionary’s definition …
Pretty straightforward, tbh. In other words, by today’s standards, it’s *something* that’s parachuted in to a story to SAVE characters in some way and/or SOLVE a problem FOR THEM.
Obviously, the Deus Ex Machina is lame. No one wants to put one in their stories.
Oh, except those using it for comedic effect of course!
We see this in Dodgeball (the money in its chest is even marked “Deus Ex Machina” as an in-joke for screenwriters … Or The Simpsons (when it turns out Willie has *handily* videotaped Homer in the infamous Gummy-Venus-DeMilo-Gate episode).
I put it to you, dear Bang2writers, “Deus Ex Machina!” has become the go-to cry for any film or TV critic, student or audience member with a cursory knowledge of the writing craft.
Far from being illuminating and useful however, I would venture a *little* knowledge is actually a dangerous thing. People are seeing the dreaded Deus Ex Machina EVERYWHERE in produced or published content. But the likelihood is probably there are NONE (unless it’s done on purpose, like for comedic effect).
That’s right – none. Find out why, after the jump.
4) Execs, readers, script editors, writers, agents, producers etc are scared shitless of writing the dreaded Deus Ex Machina *by accident*
It comes down to this. If you’ve ever sat in a script meeting for longer than an hour, an inevitable question will be:
“But is that a Deus Ex Machina?”
Seriously, if I never hear this question again? It will be too soon.
But anyway, even unspoken, the spectre of the DEM is always on the table as a consideration for writers and filmmakers. It’s one of the MOST BASIC faux pas there is. As a professional writer of any kind, you just DON’T do it without a good reason. And if you did? You probably won’t stay a professional writer very long, because no one will want to work with you.
So, I ask again:
What’s the LIKELIHOOD that piece of PRODUCED writing in front of you features a Deus Ex Machina?
Well, think of it like this, instead …
- Would a studio or TV network spend MILLIONS of pounds, yet forget a basic thing like a DEM … Seriously?
- A self-financed indie film has hundreds of hours of work in it, even if the budget is not high.
- Even a novel represents a huge investment of personal time in writing it and/or development with agents, editors and publishers
So, who is going to sabotage themselves as a MATTER OF COURSE?
Sure, there’s terrible writers in the world. But isn’t it more likely you’re not like their crappy characterisation, dreadful dialogue and painful plotting? More on this, next.
3) A spec **anything** is never produced or published “as is”.
Whilst the Deus Ex Machina can rarely be found in PRODUCED content, they can frequently be found in spec stuff. Sad but true. Ask any script editor or reader and they will confirm.
What’s more, producers and publishers rarely pick something out of the spec pile and simply produce or publish it *just like that*. If they’re putting their time and money into something, then they’re going to want to have some input. ‘Tis only fair.
On this basis then, everything spec that’s picked up is SCRUTINISED, or rather TESTED TO DESTRUCTION.
In some ways, spec work ends up with much more vigorous development than those commissioned, which is probably why so many end up in so-called Development Hell. But swings and roundabouts, because it means those that DO get through and out the other side are nearly always free of the “usual” basic faux pas – like DEMs! – once half a dozen (or more!) professionals have stuck their oar in.
Of course, it may have gone to Hell in a handbasket in other ways, but you can’t have everything. Sorry! (Not sorry).
2) “It was all a dream” (or similar) is not necessarily a Deus Ex Machina
“It was all a dream” might have been a DEM when Lewis Carroll did it in Alice In Wonderland, sure. But then we got to the late 90s/early 00s and there were protagonists all over the shop realising “it was all a dream”, especially in movies:
- whether they were dead all along
- or cryogenically frozen or
- had split personalities or
- had forgotten everything or
- or it was all an elaborate ruse.
Note this: there is NO WAY modern audiences would have stood for “Haha it was all fake, now it’s all over, *just like that* – PSYCHE!!” 100% true factoid.
Don’t believe me?
Then don’t take MY word for it, then: the mighty Ellardent confirms here, with a brilliant takedown of this question …
Where does the T Rex figure in terms of Deus Ex Machina in JURASSIC PARK?
[OMFG magnifying glass needed! So view Andrew’s original TwitLonger post here, or by clicking the pic-text above. And while we’re on the subject of dramatic satisfaction, here’s another post on JURASSIC PARK as well as MEMENTO, this time by yours truly. UPDATE (26/11) : And here’s another TwitLonger from Andrew with some gold in, this time concerning the fact Lex is a hacker and complaints on Twitter it wasn’t set up “well”: read it here.]
Audiences are NOT stupid. We forget this at our peril as writers. Yet too often people with a rudimentary or intermediate knowledge of the craft will smugly sit back and say “Deus Ex Machina”. What they really mean is “I didn’t find that bit dramatically satisfying” — more on this, next.
1) It just doesn’t work … FOR YOU.
One thing that drives me batshit crazy (okay, ANOTHER thing) is people saying something along the lines of …
“I’m in the target audience for this film / book/ TV show etc … Because I “should” like it and don’t, it is no good.”
Make no mistake. If you do not like something? YOU ARE NOT IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE.
A target audience is always going to be a guesstimate. We’re talking generalisations only, based on broad elements like age, gender and background “stuff” like class, education, race, creed and so on.
It is going to be a rough approximation. It cannot be anything else. The target audience refers to the “types” of people who “should” like something, but is problematic by its very definition.
Audiences are a MASS, made up of INDIVIDUALS
Whilst it stands to reason that “if you like *this*, you should like *that*”, there are such things as personal POV, worldviews, lived experiences etc that CAN and DO frequently get in the way on a more random level. Because we’re all different.
One movie that gets people up in arms like this is Gravity. Now, I LOVED this movie and everything in it, both as an audience member and as a script editor. And so did many people, since it’s currently making big bucks at the Box Office.
But as with anything, Gravity has its detractors and there’s a certain sequence in the film that some insist is a DEM. It’s difficult to give my takedown without spoilers, but I’ll give it a try.
Ryan Stone is not a princess in the tower. Everything she does, once she gets to the space station, comes from HER. Even that *thing* you think is a DEM? Comes from her, too.
I love Ryan Stone as a character. We see her grow in the course of the movie and throw off shackles of the past, so there is no weak storytelling in Gravity as far as I am concerned.
Everything is piled on top of Ryan Stone from the end of Act One and she is forced to climb walls, each one bigger than the last. She must step up and survive, or else lie down and die.
And what makes it so impressive is we’re just not sure if she can do it.
In this age of seemingly invulnerable, genetically modified heroes who can apparently *do anything*, how many blockbusters can say that?
What you think then is a Deus Ex Machina? IS MOST LIKELY NOT.
So, why did you find that bit dramatically unsatisfying then?
Figure that out, you may have just unlocked what makes your own brain tick when it comes to plot … which can only be a good thing for your own writing.