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, like we see 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-VenusDeMilo-Gate episode).
So, yeah. I mean besides comedy and other stories with *reasons* for a DEM. Obviously. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right:
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, because people are seeing DEMs in produced or published content where in fact (beyond the aforementioned comedic effect) there are (probably) NONE.
That’s right – none. Here’s why:
4. Execs, readers, script editors, writers, agents, producers etc are scared shitless of them.
It comes down to this. If you’ve ever sat in a script meeting for longer than an hour and you’re throwing ideas for plot beats and characters around with your collaborators, 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 the very expensive (time or money or both), not to mention highly developed (whether for good or ill) piece of work 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? Also, don’t forget even a self-financed indie film has hundreds of hours of work in it, even if the budget is not high. Oh and even a novel represents a huge investment of personal time in writing it and/or development with a publisher; not to mention there’s book covers, ISBN numbers, websites and other costs to factor in, even when self publishing. This is before you factor in how everyone is a critic nowadays, thanks to social media!
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 DEMs 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! (Only not sorry).
2. “It was all a dream” (or similar) is not necessarily a DEM.
“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 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 the 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.]
So, can you imagine? If huge filmmakers suddenly started using DEMs as a matter of course, we’d have had mutiny in the cinema aisles like Ellardent says, rather than a significant run of popular blockbuster movies like JURASSIC PARK doing what it does with the T Rex, or Thrillers of varying subgenres and budgets based on the notion of identity and the “protagonist as their own antagonist” (or what I call “The Killer Is Me” stories). NB. All of the movies I link to above GIVE CLUES THROUGHOUT the movie as to what the ending turns out to be. In other words: they set up the situation and pay it off in the resolution. Just like they’re meant to.
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”, when 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.
An example: as an ex-Teen Mum, I “should” like JUNO. And as a script editor and writer, I think it’s fantastically well written, especially on the actual page; I also appreciate it’s prochoice agenda. But do I “like” it on a personal level? No I do not. Many people have expressed disbelief at this, saying it’s “impossible” to split myself in two like this, or I must be being contrary for its own sake (especially given my background). In answer to the first statement: those people might find it “impossible”, but they’re not me. The second statement takes a little more explanation.
For me, JUNO has very little emotional truth. Whilst Juno was a difficult character on the page, I felt she was still semi-relatable; yet for me Ellen Page’s interpretation of the role makes Juno wholly obnoxious in the movie. On a plot level, Juno’s decision to pursue adoption so whimsically, picking prospective parents from the Penny Saver seems at odds with her inability to abort the foetus (yes, yes I get there would be no movie but seriously? Why not just be “too late” for an abortion? Sorted). But most of all, Juno’s brash and brazen approach, even taking the test in the store and waving it about in front of strangers, then telling her father and discussing it with him as if it’s a minor blip (“So … you’re thinking about adoption?” / “Yeah!”), is unlike me or any other pregnant teenager I’ve ever known (quite a few). We were secretive and tortured – and parents were not quite so easy going, even if they didn’t blow their tops. But ultimately, who cares? This does not mean JUNO is not deserving of its Oscar for best screenplay. It’s just a personal preference thing. It was not for me.
And the same goes for 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 have called a Deus Ex Machina. It’s difficult to give my takedown without spoilers, but I’ll give it a try:
She 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, each one insisting 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. Onwards!