11/05/2006

It's Not the Deus, It's the Machina

"What the deuce is that?"
"Deus. Deus X. Machina. There's a god in this box, you see. Very useful."
"Must be rather small, though."
"Folds up nicely, that's all."

In some ancient plays, the author sometimes wrote himself into a corner: the problems he had conjured up just wouldn't go away. So he would winch a deity onto the set to tidy everything up. This easy way out still shows up (though in different forms) even these days, and it's one of the reasons some people give for dismissing spec-fic in general: some magic or high-tech special effect will solve everything in the end.

So the backlash says, "No deus ex machina." The idea is for characters to solve their own problems--no divine intervention. This certainly closes the door on cheap and easy endings.

But we're Christians, and we have a God who intervenes--sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly. We cannot--must not--throw out the Deus with the machina. And we don't need to.

After all, if our characters work things out themselves, what need do they have of God? I used to have such moral/agnostic storylines, but I tossed them. God is the most important being there is, so any story that doesn't feature him in some way is trivial.

(Some smart aleck is sure to mention Esther. But while God isn't mentioned specifically, the chain of "coincidences" in the narrative points to his involvement. Also, aside from prayer to an unnamed God, what would be the point of their fasting? The reason God isn't mentioned is that he is always arranging things, even when he seems absent--the theme of Esther.)

I've said that there's no need to toss out the Deus. That's because the problem is the machina. It isn't really God tooling around onstage that's annoying (though "Zap! Problem solved!" is); it's the fact that he's airlifted in at the last moment. If God (or a God-replacement) is there from the start, the awkwardness largely disappears. In Star Wars (Episode IV), the Force appears early, so when it partly resolves the final problem, no one cries foul. Likewise, in The Matrix, Trinity's escape from the cops at the beginning lets us know it's not business as usual.

Don't keep God in a box until the last scene. Let him on the stage from the start.

Tune in again next time for "The Opposite of Magic":

"Is... Is that magic?" Alfred stammered.
Laylah's eyes flashed, but her tone remained gentle. "No. It's the opposite of magic. ...I merely proclaim God's will rather than trying to impose my own. That is why this is the opposite of magic."

9 comments:

chrisd said...

Hey! I remember that story! I liked how you addressed this post to writers!

Now, Steven, about pov...

Frank Creed said...

Great points.
While I can argue that God saving the day at the last moment can be done reasonably, to use this as a plot hinge is indeed cheesy.
What I fear is God's will explaining magic. Thought that was a pretty spiffy loophole. Nuts.

Frank Creed
e-mail: frankcreed@insightbb.com
Home: http://www.frankcreed.com
Lost Genre Guild Blog: http://lostgenre.blogspot.com/

Daniel I Weaver said...

Nice post, Steve. I'm sure I've pulled the "God in a box" once or twice, but you make your point in a way that certainly makes me cringe. God isn't an easy-out, He has to be a constant. There are some exceptions (I can think of a few), but in order to sell them as believable or anything more than saving a story that's trapped itself, He has to be there throughout as you've suggested.

Andrea Graham said...

Rice: Amen, amen!

Mr. Morris (of Gilbert fame) had a similar point in his book on the craft, which went something like this: if you need lightning to strike a tall building to save the day at the end, at the beginning, show a lightning-rod salesman unsucessfully pushing his wares on the building's owners who warns them of the risk

It's true, if we have from the start a clear paradigm of God moving in normally unexpected ways, He can do as He pleases.

Looking forward to the opposite of magic...

J. Mark Bertrand said...

Deus ex machina is such an interesting topic. To add an example to the mix, albeit from a different genre, I published a crime fiction story last year that ended in a deus ex machina -- or, as I prefer to think, a eucatastrope. One reviewer called me out on this point, but the turnaround was intentional -- i.e., I hadn't written myself into a corner; I'd intended from the start to write this kind of reversal, because it reflected something I was trying to say about grace. What you're saying here seems to me to highlight the difference between the deus ex machina and Tolkein's eucatastrophe -- following your advice would turn the former into the latter.

Anonymous said...

I agree. In my first book, "Raising Dragons," my heroine calls on God for help just as the dragon slayer makes ready to kill her. My readers seem to have no problem with that.

Keep up the good work.

Bryan Davis
http://www.dragonsinourmidst.com

Mirtika said...

It's making God act according to Chekov's laws? :)

I suppose how successful the deus ex machina ending depends on how successful much of what's come before it is even if the deus or dea never appear prior to the solution.

I have my deus a factor from early in my novel, even if He doesn't appear early (and I haven't decided how He will appear at the end, either.)

I wonder, though. In a culture where the myths had gods supplying hidden knowledge, intervening as they willed, carpricious AND instrusive, if a god(s) in the machine didn't make perfect cutural sense?

Mir

Grace Bridges said...

Good point, Steve! If we're going to write about God, let's make it realistic. After all, we're not out to make him look like a hastily recruited extra. Consistency in all things...

Anonymous said...

Some smart aleck is sure to mention Esther. But while God isn't mentioned specifically, the chain of "coincidences" in the narrative points to his involvement.

That's Deus ex Koinkydink instead of Deus ex Machina.

And when Deus ex Koinkydink runs head-on into Murphy's Law, you've got a plot.