Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deus Ex Machina

Imagine that you are watching a Greek play. As the end of the play nears, you begin to see that there is no way for one of the characters to survive. If he chooses life then he must give up all that is dear to him. If he chooses what is dear then he must die. Then from above the stage another character appears, one that we haven’t seen before. With a booming voice he removes the character from the danger he faces. You are left to think, “I didn’t see that coming.”

What just happened? This is something that we might call a plot device, if we don’t just call it bad writing. This plot device has the name deus ex machina or if you prefer god on a stick. In some Greek plays the playwrights would put their characters in situations from which they could not recover and then bring them out of it by bringing in a god of some sort, usually via something like a crane from above the stage. This became known as deus ex machina, or “god from a machine.” The ancient Greeks’ belief that their gods could step in and save the day is not that much different from the Christian belief that the Lord is actively concerned about what is happening in the lives of his people, so this plot device is an important consideration in Christian fiction.

The bad side of deus ex machina is obvious. People like protagonists to take charge of their situation. It’s very disappointing when the hero reaches a tragic end, but then someone steps in and makes us think that all the character did was worthless. The reader has invested so much in the story, only to find out that the author has the option of changing the parameters of the story at will. This is a little like breaking the fourth wall. For the benefit of the audience, the characters aren’t supposed to realize that they are being watched, so when a character declares that he knows he will survive because he has lines in the next act, the tone of the work changes. The same is true of deus ex machina.

On the brighter side, deus ex machina can be a fun plot device for the author to use. It is a very commonly used device in Santa Claus stories. Consider the plot of Miracle on 34th Street. Throughout the movie we assume that the old man needs help, but then he steps in and we discover that he was actually the one helping the other characters. You will recall that C. S. Lewis also made use of the god in the red suit to give the children in Narnia some of the things they would need for their journey. It obviously worked, since so many people have enjoyed his stories. I think it helps in that case that the magical character shows up before the children need them. Had he the children been in dire straights before they needed their gifts it would have seemed very odd for the jolly old elf to show up and give them just the right gifts. In some stories it makes a lot of sense to have help appear at just the right time. Or if the point is to say something about the deus that appears then it may be needed.

If you decide to use deus ex machina, be careful. It is difficult to pull off well. Most of the time, your readers won’t care for it, though they may let you by with it in a few endearing stories.