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.