At some point in our lives, we’ve all crossed paths with a deus ex machina. Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter all have them, and at climactic moments. In my opinion, these deus ex machinas don’t detract too much from the overall experience. Like any non-harmful trope or literary device, deus ex machinas aren’t inherently terrible. They just have the high potential to come across as lazy and unsatisfying, and that’s the last impression we want to leave on our readers.
Deus ex machina: an unexpected, serendipitous force, event, or character that turns the tide of a seemingly hopeless situation, typically at the climax with minimal to no foreshadowing.
Example: Our singed, slashed, and disarmed protagonist is about to meet their demise at the fires of a dragon—that is, until an unintroduced benevolent dragon swoops down from the heavens and destroys the evil dragon, saving our protagonist from certain doom.
Why This Doesn’t Work: This is the climax of our story. The culmination of our character’s growth and arc. For it to be resolved by an external force that had no bearing on the plot up until now severely detracts from that growth and tension we’ve built up throughout our whole work.
How We Can Fix It: Let’s try replacing that deus ex machina with a little cleverness from our protagonist. Perhaps they use their environment to their advantage. Or maybe they lead the dragon into a trap. So long as it’s an already touched-on detail of the environment, it’s fair game to use.
An Extra Tip: To avoid the temptation of using a deus ex machina, let’s try to avoid putting our characters in situations that are so horribly hopeless that the only escape is by some divine intervention or a convenient ally popping in, unannounced. Let’s not write ourselves into boxes and instead work on writing out more clever scenarios.
But what other ways can we avoid such pitfalls? Let’s introduce ourselves to our new friend Chekhov and his gun.
Pointblank and simple, Chekhov says that if a gun is described in our story, it must fire sometime later on, and sooner rather than later, so our readers don't forget about its existence. If they do forget, it threatens to have the same dissatisfying effect as a deus ex machina, or, if not brought up again, is just a waste of our reader’s time. Easy fixes to this include fleshing out an item of intrigue, so our readers don’t forget, or cutting the description altogether if we have no plans to bring it back into play.
We can apply Chekhov’s Gun to a plethora of objects and characters and dialogue—take, for instance, Chekhov's Gunman, a character whose presence may not make sense or serve much purpose at first, but later on, they prove to be important to the plot. We should only ever introduce and place focus on characters that fuel our story in some way, and if we introduce a character of seemingly minimal importance, they must make a return. If we can’t see any way they’d come back or leave a lasting impact on any of our main characters, it’s best to cut them out of our story all together.
They’re also excellent weapons against deus ex machinas. If we leave breadcrumbs, sprinkle hints along the way, a dramatic reveal at the climax will be less of an out of nowhere lazy fix and feel much more rewarding.
Chekhov’s Gun and its nigh-infinite variants prove valuable tools in story construction, as they slice out fluff and leave us with the solid meat of our story. We as writers strive to make the most coherent, concise, and satisfying pieces, and our readers are here to devour that. We don’t want to keep feeding them flavorless appetizers—we want to treat them to a delicacy sprinkled with meaning and purpose. Every object in our stories, every character, every history lesson, every legend in our world must serve a purpose to our plot and character development. If we achieve that, we’ve got the ingredients for a stellar manuscript.
I tell you,
As we try again.
Our souls were once connected,
Until another soul ripped us apart.
It broke ours-
It broke yours.
My soul had detached from yours,
Taking a piece of you with it.
I became entangled with the other.
And you were nothing but a distant dream to me.
A dream that I would reminisce on very seldom,
But you were still there.
I had no regard for you
Or what I did.
I broke you more than I thought someone could be broken.
I didn't care.
But the seldom thought of you,
Became more and more frequent.
So I came back to you
In hopes you would be ignorant enough to,
Let me break you again.
To use you as a way,
To break away from the soul that had once broken us.
So regardless of everything you had done to me,
That night when you came to me and said,
Because you had taken away my heart when you left.
I was hoping we could repair your damage,
But I was wrong.
I wish I didn't
“Identification - that’s how it starts, and it ends with being rounded up, experimented on, eliminated.”
-Erik Lehnsherr, alias “Magneto,” X-Men: First Class
The Effects of Registration on Enhanced Individuals in Compliance with the Sokovia Accords
To effectively criticize Captain America: Civil War [shortened to CA:CW for brevity in this essay], one needs to have a clear definition concerning the central debate of the film before any arguments start, as it is impossible to accurately comment on a film one does not understand. While the love of characters such as Iron Man or Captain America was used for marketing the “sides” of the issue, the actual argument of CA:CW is the concept and execution of the Sokovia Accords, a set of regulations concerning “enhanced individuals” and their actions.
Among those regulations are the following:
In Marvel, there are three major subcategories of humans with enhanced abilities [Mutants, Mutates, and Inhumans], all of which either stem from or result in changes to a hero’s genetic code, something which, short of experimentation, leaves them unable to revert back to a “normal” state. Under the Accords, these people, whether or not they choose to partake in superhero-type activities, would all be forced to register something they [for the most part] had no choice in; in the Marvel Multiverse, being born a Mutant is something one has no control over, similar to eye or hair color, and to force them to register simply for the mistake of being born different is something history is all-too-familiar with -- and it has never ended well.
Local heroes risk their lives for their communities; in doing so, many must keep their identity secret to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Unlike the Avengers, who solve issues on a worldwide scale, these heroes and vigilantes work where they live; the criminal they help bring to justice might be someone they have a connection with, who, without the anonymity of a mask, might already know their name and family. If a character such as Vulture or Doc Ock could simply google “Spider-Man'' and find out his name [and, by extension, his family, friends, address, etc.], his entire life would be at risk. The same issues apply to the rest of the local-type heroes such as Daredevil, Hawkeye [both of the Clint Barton and Kate Bishop varieties, at least within the comics], and many more. These people cannot risk their identities becoming public knowledge because, simply put, they do not have the resources to keep their loved ones safe.
In the event that these local heroes are known to the public, they could be brought to court and face legal action for any number of issues ranging from property damage [webs not disintegrating/leaving stains, bullet holes in walls, etc.], to bodily harm [even criminals can press charges on bodily harm if deemed overkill as punishment for their crimes]. While in some cases, such as in the event of mistaken identity, would certainly justify legal action, this ability to prosecute heroes and vigilantes opens the door for one of the specific regulations listed in the Accords, the concept of imprisonment without trial. This concept, also known as indefinite detention, not only goes against basic human decency, but against human rights laws as well. To have multiple countries, many of whom have outright denied the implementation of indefinite detention, suddenly “agree” to the process as the result of a few incidents is a major oversight by Marvel Studios who, up until the terrorist attack in Lagos [an event where, while trying to stop said terrorists, the Avengers caused the deaths of twenty-six people, eleven of which were Wakandan relief workers], portray the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a world that is at the least, accepting of its’ superpowered heroes and, at the most, enabling said heroes to continue their work.
Oddly enough, a list of those with abilities had already been created within the Marvel Universe not once, but twice, and led to disastrous consequences in both instances. Within the television show “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” a list known as the Index is kept by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency that details known humans and objects with “powers,” and assessments of their psychological state and gives them a “threat level.” If an individual is deemed too high of a threat, they are “crossed off” through a targeted killing. When the Accords are put in place, S.H.I.E.L.D. accepted their legality, transferring their registration information over, and this information was used in turn to murder seventeen registered Inhumans during a worldwide blackout. Had the Index never existed, all of those dead would still be alive, and even though some of the individuals were criminals, it is not just for them to be murdered simply for their abilities. Meanwhile, within the X-Men comic “Days of Future Past,” it is revealed that the passing of the Mutant Control Act, which, when the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional, led to the revival of the Sentinel Program in an effort to police the Mutant race. This effort spiraled when the Sentinels took over the government and persecuted all Mutants, leading to the deaths of countless Mutants, as well as those humans who stood between them.
The film itself, though, never truly does a good job of explaining these concepts to the audience; instead, it is full of flashy CGI action sequences and endless angst concerning character-specific issues that don’t apply to the population at large. Nothing in the film seems consequential because it is never explained well enough for the general audience to know the impact that implementing the Accords would have. Instead, the film chooses to rely on a character-based loyalty system that, when all of the characters make it out alive, loses all meaning to the audience.
If Marvel Studios had wanted to give CA:CW the impact it had in the comics, it should have been the “Infinity War/Endgame” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having CA:CW as the two-part, serious finale sending off the original Avengers would have given the studio time to create content furthering the world it built. Spider-Man, a significant player in the comic run of Civil War, would have been introduced on his own, as Peter Parker, not as a miniature Tony Stark mixed with the personality of Miles Morales, and the audience could have seen what it was like for him to have to hide his identity, not for fun, but to keep him and his family safe. Considering that Spider-Man’s change of team from Captain America to Iron Man in comics is known as the turning point of the entire conflict, it would make sense for him to have an established character before the movie itself, giving more weight to his actions and decisions in later appearances. To go further, if given the time, money, and studio rights, Marvel could have struck a deal akin to the Sony/Spider-Man contract, with its Netflix and Fox X-Men characters, allowing for more local heroes such as Daredevil to appear in movies, as well as Mutant characters born with abilities, showing the general audience what it is like for those who need to hide their identities as a contrast to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which, up until this point, was mainly starring heroes whose powers were a result of their own choices [for the most part], and whose identities were already known to the public by the time of CA:CW. Similarly, it would have given the writers time to flesh out the conflict and write it into the film as more than a simple “register or not”-type issue that appears to have no consequences to the world at large.
All in all, Captain America: Civil War is a movie that, in an attempt to make a statement without having the courage to actually make it, says nothing. While the comic run of Civil War dealt with the inherent moral differences that heroes of different classes would face, the issue of individual freedom when abilities are involved, and the conflicting ideals of authoritarianism versus libertarianism, the movie shows nothing more than a stitched-together quilt of flashy action sequences, witty catchphrases, and character-specific angst that, altogether, fails to deal with the Accords in any measure of substance, turning one of the most impactful events in comic book history into an utterly mediocre film that only serves to separate the Avengers in preparation for future films in the series.
There is something to be said
for those plagued by memories, or memories
they wished they had.
I can still find
your starchy inscriptions in my notebook, your
vials of perfume in my defects, dabs of your lip gloss
on the rims of rinsed glasses.
I wish that they’d been there
And on the nights when it feels
like the windows are open, though
I know that they’re shut,
there you are.
“Keep reaching out your hand.”
In A Court of Silver Flames, the continuation of Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series, we follow Nesta Archeron a year after the last book’s events in the original trilogy took place. Romance, high fantasy, interdimensional science fiction novel, yes, but this book more than anything analyzes and subverts the misconceptions about trauma, just as the original series did.
The original series followed Nesta’s little sister Feyre. Feyre Archeron dealt with her PTSD through a more socially acceptable form of suffering. She internalized the horrific abuse she witnessed and endured, tearing herself apart quietly over time, carefully masking her problems to not impose on anyone. This is what’s considered the acceptable norm of suffering mental illness to be, especially for women. Quietly enduring, yet somehow steadfast and available to emotionally care for others despite not being well themselves. Maas analyzed this first trope in the original series but took it further in this book.
Nesta was also traumatized following the events in the first series, but deals with the same issues very differently. Readers learn that Nesta has become unsafe in her vices over the year-long gap between books and constantly puts herself in danger. She alienated herself from family and friends, becoming extremely antagonistic. After a year of Nesta’s family giving her space, they stage an intervention. This starts the book’s journey as Nesta begins to heal her mind and body, kicking and screaming the whole way.
“‘I am worthless and I am nothing,’ Nesta nearly said. She wasn’t sure why the words bubbled up, pressing on her lips to voice them. ‘I hate everything that I am. And I am so, so tired. I am tired of wanting to be anywhere but in my own head.’”
Nesta, unlike her sister, is not a quiet sufferer. Like many other people dealing with trauma, while Feyre turned inward, Nesta turned outward, harming herself by not only being unsafe but by cutting off her family. She is unapologetic in her self-isolation and the lifestyle she seeks out is a form of slow suicide. This subverts the demure response to trauma that people are expected to experience and normalizes the lion-like rage survivor’s guilt can cause. While Nesta has no right to abuse her family emotionally and financially, it is an understandable response to the horrible things she experienced.
A common mantra in this book is, “Keep reaching out your hand.” It is first told to the person trying to help Nesta by another person who had long since backed away from the situation. As time goes on, though, and Nesta herself begins to heal, we see her begin to reach out.
“‘But I still don’t know how to fix myself.’
‘There’s nothing broken to be fixed,’ he said fiercely.’”
In Maas’s world, women experience oppression and abuse just as they do in ours. In the kingdom Nesta resides in, there is a temple library exclusively owned and cared for by survivors of sexual assault. People who work in the library have a complete say upon who enters and may leave whenever they are ready. Most choose to spend their lives in the sanctuary, researching and worshiping whatever gods they hold to, fearing the outside world. In other places, there are races of people born with wings. The men of these races often clip the women’s wings once they pass girlhood so they may keep them “safe,” or in other words, barefoot and pregnant.
As the book goes on, Nesta reaches out to these women. She heals herself by training and learning with others: friends who do not expect her to be okay or love herself, and expect nothing but the same understanding. We see these groups of women come together and heal by finding purpose, building trust in each other and then themselves. They fight together for their right to be safe, and they reach out their hands to those who are seeking the same thing.
And finally, at the end of the book, Nesta reaches out three times more. To the man she loves, who stood beside her despite her antagonism; to her friends, who made her feel worthy again; and finally to her family, who she knew would always love her.
By the end of her journey, Nesta is still bold, outgoing, assertive, and regal; but the fire she let burn in her body and destroy her from the inside out has turned to a passion fueled by growing purpose. She will never be demure and quiet, but she also will not harm herself, her family, or those undeserving again.
As is Maas’s forte, this book wonderfully analyzes the many facets of trauma and how social expectations impact how we deal with mental health issues. It also normalizes women who say and do what they want without feeling the need to be polite. Even before Nesta fell into her mind, she was bold, blunt, and prideful without guilt or remorse. If someone was rude to her, she told them that. If someone’s voice was too insignificant to be talking over her own, she said so.
Overall, Maas continues to embrace and challenge the ideas of mental health and femininity that our society holds today, which was a delight to read in A Court of Silver Flames.
This novel shows how and when to reach out, give up, and come back. It extends a hand to readers hoping to understand themselves when society will not.
“‘All the things I’ve done before—’
‘Leave them in the past. Apologize to who you feel the need to, but leave those things behind.’
‘Forgiveness is not that easy.’
‘Forgiveness is something we also grant ourselves.’”