A to Z 2017: Deus ex machina

My A-Z Blogging theme is to cover 26 touch-me-not categories of fiction writing. These are frequently the trouble spots which can be useful components of the story if handled properly, but when rushed through, can cause all kinds of trouble. While the genre is fantasy, the tips can apply to anything, from romance to literary fiction.


While exploring the ruins of an old castle, Mordekai and his sister Monique accidentally destroy an old tower only to find themselves in a different place, or time, entirely. Then a giant goat crashes through the wall and carries Mordekai off, leaving Monique with the unpredictable Princess Mural. After a variety of adventures, they’re reunited in the courtyard of the villains castle. They take refuge in a stable along one wall and hold off the goat forces until her uncle delivers an ultimatum: surrender the throne of Stelvia or be crushed beneath the roof of the stable. He then leaves them under the guard of the giant goat and the goat soldiers while they make their choice.

X: Deus ex Machina

Both Mordekai and Mural looked at Monique blankly. Clearly, martyrdom suits them. But she wasn’t ready to die for anyone, much less a world that seemed more make-believe than reality. “Look, what about magic? Send your uncle to another place?”

“Not possible. At least…to summon is honorable. To send is not permitted.”

Monique let out a sigh. Moral codes. “Fine. Prayers? What about…those people you were going to contact earlier, before the abbot captured us?”

“You were captured by an abbot?”

She shot her brother a look and hoped he’d be quiet.

“Those allies are asleep. We were going to awaken them.”

“Can we do it from here?”

“It requires a duet. An ancient song.”

Of course it does. “Do you know it?”

“Yes, but…I know none but the keeper of the cave who could sing it with me. And I know not whether my allies could hear us from here.”

“It’s worth a try. You start singing it, and Mordekai, you listen. Once you know the song well enough, sing with her.”

“In harmony,” Mural said before beginning to sing. She had a good voice, but it felt like standing next to a Broadway singer as she belted out a showtune. No warning, just instant, unabashed singing.

“Why me?” Mordekai muttered, leaning towards Monique.

“Because the singing was more or less my idea. And you were in choir when you were young.”

He looked like he’d love to argue the point, but time was running out. Who knew how long it’d take for “nuncheon” to be served? And you can bet he isn’t planning on sharing. Her stomach felt like a deflated balloon–a metaphor she was sure no one around her, save her brother, would get. “Sing,” she said, encouraging her brother when he glanced at her. At least, she hoped it was enouraging. She didn’t want to come across like the phantom of the opera, but honestly, they had to make an effort of some kind. Maybe singing can save us. 

The song was more like a ballad than most, and it seemed almost religious as it implored some unmoving mover to shake the rocks and break the seal, “bend thine ear to our appeal.” It sounded like pure, prayerful rubbish, but she couldn’t think of anything else to do. Even now, the giant goat glared down on them, just waiting for a reason to bury them in oblivion.

But she could hear her brother’s deeper voice joining Mural’s at last, and she had to admit, the sound was beautiful. Not worth dying over, but very pretty all the same. It went on and on and then began to start over…just as the goat captain brought his men to attention and Mural’s uncle came out of the castle.

Then, there was the most heart-stopping sound. A roar, born of wind and rock and fire and hurricane, probably. It shook the air, and everything that could move froze. Then, slowly, collectively, they all looked skyward.

Just in time to duck. A massive dragon, twice the size of the goat, swooped down from the sky, mouth wide and claws ready, only to be followed by another. The courtyard panicked, and Monique was ready to hide in the back of the stable at this new threat when she glanced at Mural…who was smiling and waving, as though the flying reptiles were old friends. These were the sleeping allies? She was glad she hadn’t known earlier; she didn’t think she’d have believed it.

Cautiously, she crept closer to the railing where her brother was standing, whooping and hollering, one arm around Mural and the biggest smile on his face. She watched as the dragons rounded up the goats, carrying them off to she-didn’t-want-to-know-where, until at last it was just the three of them and Mural’s uncle.

“Any last words?” Mural asked.

He looked at her for one long moment and then his expression became a sneer. “I wouldn’t dream of groveling, even for your pleasure, dear niece.” Then the thick, scaly wing of another dragon swooping in separated them, and when it flew off, he was gone.


Deus ex machinas are an old, old means of ending a story: you get into a dilemma, and the “God of the Machine” comes down, sets everything right, and saves the day.

And sometimes, such an abrupt, eucatastrophic ending can work in a story if you’ve actually prepared the readers that such a thing could happen.  In stories like The Lord of the Rings, where the eagles swoop in and save the day (with a little help from Gollom and the ring being destroyed) or even in The Chronicles of Narnia, where Alsan comes back to life…and yet I think those work, because even though they’re outside the current scene and expectations, they aren’t outside the world of the story and the way it works. There is magic in Narnia, so there’s nothing to say you can’t have someone come back to life. There are eagles in The Lord of the Rings, and the destruction of the ring was bound to have a major impact on the evil forces.

But most of the time, such “salvations” come off as too convenient. Rather than finding a solution in the immediate surroundings or within the characters themselves, the plot reaches out to some other source to solve things. Everything is neatly resolved by new information:a clue everyone else overlooked, a character no one paid attention to, the sudden arrival of a prince (or god…or in this case, dragons). So if you think your ending is convenient, consider whether it feels organic to the world of the story–whether there has been sufficient foreshadowing to where it won’t feel like it comes right out of the blue. And, when in doubt, send your story to some beta readers or a book coach and see what they think.

Until the next letter,



Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Photo courtesy of gratisography

3 thoughts on “A to Z 2017: Deus ex machina

  1. I think you’re right, deus ex machina may work… but it takes a writer who knows exactly what he/she is doing.
    Normally, I’d avoid the deus ex machina situation like the plague. Readers will know you are cheating, because if the solution doesn’t come from the story itself, anybody can see it.
    And still, I occasionally still see this kind of solution around.

    The Old Shelter – 1940s Film Noir


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