Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Deus Ex Machina Temptation

by Janis Patterson

Writers have been lazy for a long time, even back to the earliest days of literature and drama, like the Ancient Greeks. They weren’t so much into novels - though they did have a form of them - but they were very big into theatre. Some of their plays are still performed in their original (albeit translated) form today.

One thing, though, that does not translate well is the concept of Deus ex Machina - i.e., god in the machine. The Greeks loved multi-thread stories, and they did so love to complicate them, crossing storyline and storyline and getting everything so mixed up that the action looked like a snarl of delicate yarn after three rampaging kittens have finished playing with it. 

It got to the point where it would take another play longer than the first one to get everything unsnarled - if it could be in direct action at all - that the concept of Deus ex Machina evolved. Some god or another would come down from Olympus at the moment of maximum confusion, deliver a trenchant little homily on the fecklessness of man and sort things out with direct action. In other words, he would say ‘you go with you, and you go with you, and you are a criminal so you need to go to jail...’ etc. Morally and romantically satisfying, I guess, but really really bad drama.

These days we aren’t so big on gods coming down and meddling in our business - though at certain times I really think we could use some! - but writers have been known to substitute Great-Aunt Debbie or sweet old Professor Smith or even a talking cat for Zeus or Apollo. And that is not only a disservice to the readers, it’s a cheat, which is an insult to the reader. Worst of all, it is terribly lazy writing. Our characters need to work out their own problems in a rational and logical manner - and our readers need to see them do it.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

I do agree with you. Characters need development. They need to work out their problems for themselves. Of course, the Greeks believed that a fatal flaw in character led to tragedy which we still accept.

Morgan Mandel said...

Reminds me of Hallmark movies where in the last 10 minutes someone says something to the hero like "What are you waiting for? drop everything and go after her right now before it's too late."

Susan Oleksiw said...

Spot on, Janis. Most writers are careful about this but I recently read a short story that ended with what I call a cheat, and it infuriated me. The writer obviously didn't know how to end it, and just threw the answer at the reader. I wrote a short story in rebuttal I was so angry. The writer owes it to the reader to be fair all the way through to the end. Great post.

Barry Ergang said...

I might be pilloried for saying this, not least because it's been so many years since I read it that I don't recall the specific story events that led to my disappointment with an otherwise exciting and well-told story that's considered something of a modern classic, but I felt Stephen King's THE STAND's climactic moments were of the *deus ex machina* variety.

Barry Ergang said...

With regard to Susan's comment about cheats, let me share my review of a James Patterson novel: