Monday, October 14, 2013

Deus Ex Machina

The phrase “deus ex machina” comes from the Latin for "god from the machine". It is a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Often, it is intended to move the story forward when the writer has "painted himself into a corner" and sees no other way out.

In preparation for the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, I have been watching some of the previous “new” episodes introduced in 2005. At the end of season one, the Doctor and his companion, Rose, are being held hostage by the Doctor’s nemesis, the Daleks. The Daleks, a ruthless race bent on destroying all life but their own kind are about to destroy Earth and all of humanity. There seems to be no hope on the horizon. And yet, in the last 7 minutes of the show, Rose looks into the “heart” of the TARDIS, the Doctor’s space ship and sees the Vortex and absorbs all the power of the TARDIS. This makes her literally like a goddess. She destroys the millions of Dalek ships with a mere thought and saves the universe. One can argue that the “heart” of the TARDIS was mentioned in earlier episodes but this “deus ex machina” came our of nowhere.

Horace in his Ars Poetica, instructs poets that they must never resort to a "god from the machine" to resolve their plots. He was referring to Greek theater, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane used to lower actors from above, or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.

To the credit of the writers of Doctor Who, the device was not used without a price. Rose almost died and the Doctor had to absorb the Vortex energy from her to save her life. Because of this, the Doctor “died” and regenerated from the ninth doctor to the tenth doctor. In fact, the deus ex machina has become the go to plot device when you have to stop the bad guy. Think about it. How many times have we seen the bad guy hit by a car or a bus in television shows and movies? It is lazy and poor plotting!

In Christian fiction, there is an implicit God from the machine. We have an all powerful, sovereign God who can literally swoop in at the last minute and save us from an impossible situation. Think of the ram in the bush, the parting of the red sea, and the ultimate deus ex machina, the resurrection of Christ. Our fiction by its very nature is a setup for using the deus ex machina.

Lately, I have observed a curious development in secular fiction whether in print, on television, and in movies. It seems the “universe” has become the deus ex machina! The “universe” wanted two people in love to get together. The “universe” saved us from certain doom. Also, in such shows as Once Upon a Time (THE Master of deus ex machina!) Emma Swan is called the “savior” over and over and over until it is almost nauseating.

It would seem that our culture is craving some kind of deus ex machina to save us from our fate. Maybe this is why current fiction is filled with this device. Perhaps it is a subtle desire in our culture for a true God. How then as Christian authors can we handle this device? After all, isn’t every answered prayer a true deus ex machina? Isn’t every “miracle” a deus ex machina?

In my second book, “The 12th Demon: The Mark of the Wolf Dragon” I was very pleased when my editor complemented me on using a device to kill the “bad guy” that was placed very early in the story. This device surfaced about three times before the final scene and hopefully, when the reader saw the device pop up in the final scene, there was a sense of satisfaction that the outcome of this scene would be anything but contrived.

So, here is my question. How do you use God in your stories? How do you avoid the deus ex machina in your stories without coming across as contrived and sending your reader into terminal eye rolling?

No comments: