Intersections: Deus ex Machina

Plot is often predictable. There’s the hunky-dory Good Guy enjoying the bliss of his Goodness until (gasp) a Conflict arises, which must be resolved lest The Girl gets away, the town is submerged in acid, or the overtly assured Bad Guy makes off with the diamonds. All of them.

Some authors, thankfully, stray from this structure and surprise us with plot twists and sudden endings, while others look upwards for divine intervention.

The titular character of Monty Python’s Life of Brian races through the streets of Judea with a gang of vengeful Romans at his heels. He weaves through the crowd, desperate for escape. A tower appears in Brian’s view.

The rising action builds with each step Brian takes until he reaches the top of the tower, the climax, and must face either the pursuant Romans behind him or certain death below.

He trips and falls.

Enter Deus ex Machina, the unabashed savior, the scissors that cut the suspension of disbelief, and the author’s reminder that this is their story and they’ll do what they want, thanks.

“Aliens!” Deus booms.

The fourth-wall-destroyer rotates ever so slightly to avoid the literary critic’s flying tomato, straightening afterwards with a smug grin.

Brian tumbles downwards for exactly two seconds before an alien spaceship swoops into the frame and catches him, crashing moments later but delivering him, unscathed, far away from the Romans.

Having released the falling action from any responsibility to the original narrative, Deus ex Machina renders the resolution underwhelming due to its lack of contextual believability.

Deus disappears back into the ether, chuckling.

Deus ex Machina, Latin for “God from the machine,” dates back to stage theater in ancient Greece and refers to the moment when “God,” or other deity, would be lowered onto the stage by “the machine,” specifically a crane, to solve a hopeless situation.

However, Deus ex Machina requires a more careful curation than Brian’s situation may initially reveal. To preserve its unexpectedness, Deus ex Machina must wait outside the story’s context until the moment it strikes.

Since there is no mention of extraterrestrials or space travel before the scene in question, Brian’s saviors truly come out of nowhere.

If Deus ex Machina took the form of anything previously deemed capable of resolving the conflict, such as Brian defending himself with a knife we know he always carries with him, it’s power would be lost, reduced to a mere plot twist.

On the SAT…and beyond!

Our tomato-flinging critic contends that Deus ex Machina exists to save an author who has written themselves into a corner and must rely on unlikely, “isn’t-that-convenient?” happenings to carry a narrative to conclusion or, even worse, to sanitize a narrative’s established rough-around-the-edges content with a convenient ending, steering clear of something more tragic.

While a question specifically about this device may not appear on the SAT, paying close attention to believability is invaluable when thinking critically about literature.

While reading fiction often puts you at the mercy of an author’s outlandish or even downright illogical endings, as the reader, you are more than capable of sniffing out poorly-crafted plotlines and becoming confident in your analysis instead of submitting blindly to the pedestal-dwelling Author.

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