Fixing Deus ex Machina
In the previous post, I pointed out how even an accomplished author such as Robert Harris can get caught in the Deus ex Machina trap. Let’s talk about how to avoid it.
The Machina bit—how to tell
It can be hard to identify this. You may have had a sudden brilliant idea which would work things out for your heroine and wrote it out. But when you’ve done that, pause for a moment.
First off, take a skeptical look at your climax and resolution. Is there enough build-up to make both credible? That is, is it what most reasonable people might do to resolve their problem? Does the heroine have the skill, experience, guts, etc. to pull it off? Or has someone suddenly ridden out of the blue for the rescue? And yes, Prince Charmings would fit this description.
If you’re not sure, ask friends, family, etc. They don’t have to read the whole novel. Just explain the issue that the heroine is facing and how it is resolved. If you get nods, you’re probably good to go. If you get puzzled expressions and lots of questions you may have an inadvertent Deus ex Machina.
The fix bit
It may look like an insurmountable mountain but actually, the fix can be easy although possibly time-consuming.
Deus ex Machinas, almost by definition, come out of nowhere. And make the solution you propose unlikely or unbelievable.
But the answer is not necessarily to change the ending. The answer is more likely to be going back into your story to introduce enough elements so that the resolution doesn’t feel to your reader like an easy way out for you.
Let’s go back to our hero on a crumbling cliff. A bomb goes off and kills the enemies but not the hero. If you really want to keep this ending, think about how to make it credible.
Could the hero take a huge risk and jump down to the rocks beneath the cliff before the bomb goes off? If so, you need to establish earlier that he is a dare-devil type with highly developed agility (and show, don’t tell, please).
Or could the enemies be fairly incompetent bomb makers and the bomb just stuns them? If so, you would need to have more than a couple of scenes showing the enemies’ incompetence and particularly in bomb deployment. An opportunity for some humor if you want to take it that way?
I’m not saying that any of these would be fabulous saves to your story but the point is that you can go back into the story and build in what you need to make the ending credible.
For example, in Munich which we discussed in the last post, the author Robert Harris could have included some subtle scenes where the secret agent/secretary does things which are unremarkable at the time but, on reflection, are clues the reader fails to pick up. For example, the hero could be irritated because the secretary keeps trying to tidy up his papers. Or he keeps running into her as he is going about his mission. He remarks on it but in a by-the-by way.
It is often effective to introduce these hints when the reader is being distracted by some high drama related to the main plot.
So, it’s not that you can’t have a bomb going off. But make sure there are enough illustrations/clues/hints in the preceding scenes so that your reader’s reaction is “How clever,” rather than “Huh?”