Write it now: the perils of the deus ex machina

If you think Sharknado was bad, as in ‘deliberately-so-bad-it’s-good’, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.
‘”That’s no moon”. “Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.” “Quick- switch on the INTEROSITER!”

Before Baywatch, before Knight Rider, there was… Star Crash. Spaghetti sci-fi made in Italy 22 milliseconds after Star Wars, directed by Luigi Cozzi and featuring The Hoff. I saw it on first release and again recently. It has a certain cult status, and is ‘good’ in that atrociously awful way. As it was Italian, it oozed visual style and had some wonderful nods to Ray Harryhausen. But the spaceship models had been put together from kit parts, including the sprue. The story didn’t hang together at all. The script was hilarious, and the soundtrack was dubbed from English into…er… English, sometimes without proper lip synch.

It also shared the major plot problem with Star Wars. The deus ex machina.

In Star Wars, the Death Star, via a very stupid design flaw, could be blown up by a single shot. (‘I’m going to turn off the targeting computer’. ‘No, Luke, no. Turn ON your targeting computer. It’s designed to hit small targets. That’s what it’s there for.’)

In Star Crash, one character had super-powers, never hinted at until needed to get the Good Guys out of a scrape.  And again…and again…

Still, even the best authors succumb – look at Tolkien, for whom eagles repeatedly  rescued everybody at the last moment. especially in The Lord of the Rings where to be consistent with what had happened to that point, Frodo and Sam should have died after fulfilling the quest. I suspect Tolkien’s decision to repeatedly portray a defiance of death, whatever it took, flowed from his Western Front experience – after all, the whole Mordor sequence reflected that aspect of his life. However, it led to such obvious questions as why nobody asked the eagles to fly Frodo to Mordor in the first place. Much easier.

Setting that aside, the deus ex machina happens mostly when the author paints their characters into a situation that’s impossible to escape from. Either intentionally or through ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow creation.

The Hemingway answer is ‘OK, then they die’. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I point to the last pages of Farewell To Arms.

But that doesn’t happen in deus ex machina stories.

The problem is that deus ex machina reduces the story to melodrama, killing suspension of disbelief stone dead. Why? Because deus ex machina moments don’t happen in the real world unless you’re deliberately funny.

What’s the answer? Planning. Sketching out plot and story; and if you must have your characters end up in an impossible position – well, it’s going to be on the last page, isn’t it. The trick is to ensure the plot is structured to that end – that it completes the arc, dramatically and in terms of character. As Hemingway, indeed, always did.

Hemingway. Tolkien. spaghetti sci-fi… Did I just post something linking them all? I did…didn’t I.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Finishing up the NaNo tip series, more writing hints, and fun stuff about Interositers – watch this space.


12 thoughts on “Write it now: the perils of the deus ex machina

  1. That video is hilarious!
    Great points. I’ve always had my protagonist get herself out of pickles rather than depend on flying eagles for rescue…
    Just a tip. People can comment from the new reader without giving you a view. If you go to settings you can change the post to a summary so they have to click to your blog. It is the same with an email alert. You want them to “read more” so they click around your blog.

  2. This gets especially tricky when writing a story involving magic and/or superpowers. At the moment I’m struggling with how I’m going to develop my protagonists powers so that, by the time of the final battle, everything doesn’t just suddenly work.

    1. Definitely a tricky one. A. E. Van Vogt tackled it quite often in his books via the theme of the ‘constrained superman’ – his ‘more than superhuman’ protagonists inevitably had some restriction or otherwise that prevented them cutting loose with their full power and he was able to draw the tension along with that. Exemplified by ‘The Silkie’ (1969) – worth checking out, if you can find it, I suspect it’s well out of print these days. Here’s the Wikipedia link (with spoilers…) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silkie_(novel)

  3. I think Tolkien’s eagles (which are really cool!) provide only limited service in Middle Earth, making connecting flights difficult at times. Thus, there were no flights to Mordor or the Lonely Mountain. When I developed magic for the world I created one priority was the limitations. “You have magic? Great. Good for you. But there’s a price to pay.”

    1. It’s the restrictions that definitely create the drama of a story. I think Tolkien certainly had some major limits in mind for the Eagles; they were headstrong and wouldn’t intervene in matters mortal if they didn’t feel like it. Apropos magic limits, a story that springs to mind is Larry Niven’s ‘The Magic Goes Away’ in which magic works – but it’s a finite resource, and when it’s exhausted, that’s it.

  4. Scary post for you, Matt. However,once again, you’re spot on. I’ve never seen Star Crash and as it turns out, probably never will. As for Star Wars, every static defense as a weak spot. So, I could buy into that one. I guess I never viewed the Eagles in this light before. It would have saved several hundred pages if they would have carried Frodo And Sam to the foot of Mount Doom. I don’t think that would have been as epic a story though.

    1. Oh, ‘Star Crash’ is worth a look! There might be clips on YouTube, maybe? It was SO bad that it could only be called ‘good’, though weirdly they did a couple of quite good science things in it that ‘Star Wars’ missed, such as the point that your gun’s going to run out of shots after a while. I think it has a kind of cult following. Another one in the same ilk was ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980) – but slightly better to the extent that it was deliberately played to be ‘camp’, 1960s ‘Batman’ style.

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