Today’s fiction writing exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises. This exercise presents two storytelling devices: the deathtrap and deus ex machina. Enjoy!
Deathtrap and Deus Ex Machina
If you’ve ever read a story in which characters are rescued from a dire situation in a way that is truly unbelievable, you’ve probably experienced deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is a literary device that is best avoided, if possible. It occurs when a difficult or impossible situation is resolved through unlikely or unbelievable methods, often through supernatural intervention.
In many cases, deus ex machina occurs when there’s another literary device in play—the deathtrap. A deathtrap is a storytelling device in which the antagonist has captured the protagonist (or other primary characters), and there appears to be no way out. Deus ex machina is sometimes used to resolve a deathtrap.
We love to see characters get out of tight spots, but if the audience is pulled out the story because they cannot suspend their disbelief, then the story isn’t doing its job. And deus ex machina, being unlikely and unbelievable by definition, runs a risk of pulling readers out of a story.
But deus ex machina has been around for a long time, and sometimes it’s used effectively. If you choose to incorporate it in your stories, give it the eyeroll test—have some friends review the scene, and see if they roll their eyes at it.
You can also resolve problems caused by deus ex machina with a little revision. If you’ve used deus ex machina to get characters out of a situation, you can always revise other parts of the story to make it more believable. For example, if a character is dangling off the edge of a cliff and a dragon appears and rescues the character, it’s deus ex machina. But if the dragon is introduced earlier, the narrative is more believable when it appears at a dire and pivotal moment.
Find a story that uses deus ex machina to rescue characters from a deathtrap. Brainstorm some solutions that would have been more believable to get the characters out of the sticky situation. Try to come up with at least five alternatives.
Write a scene in which it appears the protagonist is stuck in a terrible situation with no way out. It doesn’t have to be a deathtrap—just an impossible situation. Then find an unlikely or unbelievable way for the character to get out of the situation via deus ex machina and another that is realistic and believable and therefore not deus ex machina.
What happens when you write your characters into a difficult and dangerous situation and can’t think of a way to get them out? Have you ever used deus ex machina in one of your stories? What about a deathtrap? Why is deus ex machina often ineffective or even detrimental to a story?