Writer Wednesday – Coming to Terms: Deus ex Machina

This will be the first in a series I will be writing about from time to time. Coming to Terms is where I will discuss the numerous terms used to describe complex ideas or common tropes among authors and playwrights. Today, I will be discussing the much maligned term of Deus ex machina.

This term is a Latin phrase ‘ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός’ meaning “God out of a Machine”. It refers to a story or narrative whose ending includes an improbable event that resolves all problems within the story and brings it to a conclusion, often a happy one. The improbable event is one which has no traceable connection to the actions of the characters themselves.

The term was literal in the time of Ancient Greek theater. At the end of a play, a crane would be used to lower a character portraying a god into the scene. At times it would be multiple gods who were lowered. The god being would resolve issues simply by willing it so. The device was a μηχανῆς which would be mechanes, later translated into machina.

In modern usage, it is often less to do with gods, and more a matter of some unexpected turn of events or other situation that allows for an otherwise bleak story to end on a more happy note. For examples of Ancient Greek versions of this, seek out the works of Euripides. He often used this plot device to resolve situations in his works that would otherwise be helpless. In more modern works, watch Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I.

If you want someone to thank for it’s limited usage in the modern age, look over the works of Aristotle. He is the first person known, in his Poetics, to criticize the use of Deus ex machina. In that work, he argued that a plot’s resolution must arise from within the story, flowing from the established action of the play prior to that point. To this day, we continue to use this as a basis for how we apply our own story arcs. Along this same line is Chekhov’s gun, which is a topic for a future edition of Coming to Terms.

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