“When they don’t know what to say
and have completely given up on the play
just like a finger they lift the machine
and the spectators are satisfied.” – Antiphanes
Deus ex machina
At the moment, I am busily writing my new thriller, The Secret, which I’m aiming to release in the middle of 2018. I’m also avidly reading in between writing and thinking about my plot lines. On top of my list of reading materials, has to be Stephen King’s On Writing. If you haven’t come across this book, I highly recommend it! As well as tips on writing, he includes stories about his own life, his own insecurities on writing, and why he is so passionate about his craft. He also adds tips on the works of other writers and their own story-lines. So, I came across one tip that he talks about, that is, deus ex machina or the ‘God of the machine’ in storytelling.
Simply put, the deus ex machina is a plot device (I have discovered!), that has been in existence since Greek writers such as Antiphanes, first wrote his stories, way back in 387 BC. It is a technique of writing which allows the writer to conclude his story. It has been used time and time again in novels that are good, not so good, and ones that are bestsellers. Think John Grisham novels, the Lord of the Rings trilogies, and you have the basic idea. So, whatever complications have arisen in the plot, whatever event has befallen your characters, the deus ex machina is an effective way of neatening all the plot lines to a happy conclusion, however implausible that may seem.
Therein lies the nub of the problem. A deus ex machina that resolves a seemingly impossible situation for the characters, and within the last few pages of the book, has to come in for some criticism. This style of writing has been known to leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, wanting more, especially if they have immersed themselves so heartily into a seemingly impossible plot that could never ordinarily be concluded. It also can imply a simple lack of creativity on the writer’s part, who, having created seemingly impossible events and situations, are now keen to finish their story quickly and swiftly. So, a deux ex machina plot-line may lead to a lack of belief in the story, and a reader who think the tale too fantastical to end so abruptly!
Notable examples of deux ex machina lie in novels that are highly successful bestsellers. Think, The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, in which a seemingly impossible situation (aliens landing on earth, that cannot be attacked by mere humans), which resolves itself by a simple bacteria in the end. I remember reading this story and thinking the same thing, back in my school days! My own example of this, is a book I read just recently. The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a wonderfully descriptive historical novel, that is meticulously researched and a pleasure to read, BUT the story of a young servant girl living in England during the Black Plague, has a weird ending! Having engrossed myself in the main character Anna, I was sharply disappointed in the last few pages of this book.
But whatever shape or form your plot takes you, as writers we are always aiming to end our stories in the best possible way. The craft of writing is already filled with doubts and insecurities on one’s writing styles and techniques. The hardest part of a book can be the ending, as we try and weave the narrative to its best conclusion.
As Stephen King himself has said; “Wouldn’t we all like to have a deus ex machina in our own lives?”
Anything that will make us better writers is fine my me!
Happy writing, fellow bloggers 🙂
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