Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deus Ex Machina de Bois

Once upon a time, my high school drama club put on a production of As You Like It by William Shakespeare. At the end of the play entire conflict is resolved by a new character named Jaques entering the scene and announcing that the combined forces certain to bring around the doom of the main character have halted due to the various oddities of fate. So, all eternal threats were canceled by nothing that anyone got to see. That character became known to cast and crew as Deus Ex Machina de Bois.

Deus Ex Machina is a plot device in which a person or thing appears from nowhere to save the main characters from seemingly impossible odds. The term itself dates back to Ancient Greece. The expression comes from the Ancient Greek practice of lowering the actor playing a god onto the stage with a crane. Euripides used Deus Ex Machina as the end to half of his plays. Yikes.

What's my problem with Deus Ex Machina? It's boring.

Think about it. How interesting would the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone have been if instead of Harry getting stone through the goodness of his heart and fighting Quirrel, instead McGonagal had shown up from nowhere and defeated Quirrel for him while Flitwick retrieved the stone? Not interesting.

The fun of the story is how the MC (you know, the person that the reader actually cares about) works out how to fix the problem/get the girl/save the world. No one wants to watch Deus Ex Machina de Bois do it (Here's a hint: He's new. No one cares about him.)

The only reason Shakespeare pulls it off at all (and just barely) is that the main characters themselves work out all of the personal conflicts that the audience has been watching. Deus Ex Machina, in that case, is only used to resolve that external conflict the audience hasn't been watching. If de Bois had tried to resolve the relationship conflicts at the same time (or worse, if he had actually succeeded in doing it) the audience would probably have thrown down their programs and stormed out.

Let's face it, not even Shakespeare or Euripides could really pull it off. Who wants to spend hours rooting for a character only to have him not resolve the problems on his out?


  1. EXCELLENT post! I love the ideas you state here that Dues Ex Machina is boring, and that's why it doesn't work. I've never thought of it that way, but it's true. This sparks off some really great ideas for a post. I hope you wouldn't mind me linking back to you!

  2. Of course I wouldn't mind. I'd glad to know something I said inspired thoughts. :D