Monday, March 17, 2008

Te Deum

classical antiquities,
art gallery photo, 1991.

A nice discussion and exercise at Evil Editor over the weekend on deus ex machina (aka aliens arrive in chapter twelve, aka miraculous rescue.)

A device which, to earn a superior smile from critics, must blind-side the reader.

Cases involving the unreliable narrator must be excused.

Also, those where the writer has assiduously dropped little hints, foreshadows and clues like bread crumbs along the way, so the reader may retrospectively say "Ah! Makes sense!"

But the discussion made me wonder why, in general, we never hold the diabolus ex machina to the same strict account.

I suppose it's because we are conditioned to expect a reflection of real life wherein we may view trouble as random, as inexplicable, as shit happens -- a thunderbolt thing.

While writers are constantly advised to make their characters suffer, I do think a Big Evil at a crucial point should not be inserted into a narrative in a cavalier fashion.

Though it's not quite the same thing, I also become annoyed when insufficient reason is provided for the serial killers, stalkers, mafia hit-men, international cartels, assorted demons, etc., to target a particular john/jane doe hero/ine.

Apropos of nothing in particular:
While researching paranormal stuff, I came across two interesting quotes:

The fantastic is the real that most people want to ignore -- Robertson Davies.

Accept the mystery behind knowledge: it is not darkness but shadow -- Northrup Frye.


Anonymous said...

Deux ex machina, for me, is absolutely fatal in modern writing. Not only do I cringe, I scream out loud. In Classical stories, it's another matter. I wonder if it served the purpose of showing the day-to-day influence of the gods, which later got watered down into metaphor.

Jaye Wells said...

I love the idea of diabolus ex machina.

Bernita said...

Me too, Jason.
I wonder if omniscient is more prone to it.
In classical lit, divinity formed part of the world context.

It's the Shiva Syndrome, Jaye!

Josephine Damian said...

Bernita: I remember being really pissed when Tom Wolfe used an earthquake in "A Man in Full" to free a character from prison. I still finished the book though. Wolfe is one of my "guilty pleasure" writers.

Robertson Davies? Can't go wrong reading his quotes! His books are among my favorites.

Bernita said...

An earthquke, Josephine?
That qualifies - even insurance companies refer to such events as "acts of God."
Mind you, if tremors and such were presented early and throuhout the narrative, I suppose it wouldn't.

bookfraud said...

deus ex machina or diabolus ex machina in modern fiction usually aren't cop outs as much as the writer has painted herself into a corner with nowhere to go. i guess it beats "it was all a dream!" or an o. henry ending, too.

like you said, the diabolus can work, if not done in a cavalier fashion, but there has to be motivation for that serial killer. and it has to be set up along the way -- in other words, the writer should know there's going to be some out-of-the blue resolution or devil from the machine well before he writes it.

Dave F. said...

I read and watch books, TV shows, movies mostly based on their ability to be in some way realistic. That is te essence of our dislike about a Deux ex Machina (DEM) insertion into the plot. These are plot elements that are insufficiently foreshadowed or altogether outrageous. I won't repeat that discussion from EE's blog.

They didn't however, discuss the diabolus ex machina that you mention. It seems fashionable in these days to have characters with the most abhorrent childhoods possible. Half of the programs on TV have characters with dysfunctional families (from emotional neglect to outright molestation, from drugged out siblings to oversexed parents, or that love affair that scarred the protagonist's soul for life.). Some of the last books I've read suffer from this.

It's like the author shoved a bunch of faults down the reader's gullet rather than work out a flawed person. When we read MacBeth, we discover an ambitious but not too bright soldier who listens to his wife and descends into murder. MacBeth doesn't have lines about his upbringing or how badly his parents treated him or his schoolmates who beat him, none of that.

One of my favorite actresses, Julianna Margules, just started a new show and her character is "forcibly" more interesting because her son was kidnapped and never found. I hate to be cruel, but that type of mental anguish doesn't make a flawed and interesting character. It makes for a morose and moody backstory that intrudes on every detail of the current story. Anytime the writers want to twitch the main character, they bring up the past. Cheap and cheesy.

Another example is the latest version of Battlestar Galactica. I liked the first year because of its darkness, but now, they are just suffering at every turn. It has descended into pain and agony - they all hurt, they all conspire, they all suffer - - - without relief. Even the villains are not true villains but suffering souls on the journey to "something that happened before." I half expect Job to appear with all his boils. Some voice keeps telling all of them "this has happened before" just like Yahweh and the Devil sit sipping tea and discussing Job. DIabolus Ex Machina

Accept the mystery behind knowledge: it is not darkness but shadow -- Northrup Frye
I like this quote. To paraphrase something I heard - we are all gray. We live in the shadows between the light and the dark. It's like everything is just a reflection of something else. We stand between the light and what we see projected by our actions. We look at the light for knowledge and understanding and we are blinded to the truth.

Billy said...

I agree it is more common in omniscient narratives, such as those of Thomas Hardy. More crap happens to Tess (of the d'Urburvilles) out of nowhere than you can (cliche time) shake a stick at. Bt that was Hardy's pessemistic philosophy at work, almost akin to American late 19th C naturalism.

Interestingly, Stephen Crane, the quintessential literary naturalist, didn't pull out the stops like Hardy did. Crane's short fiction is considered the finest in American lit by some, but he didn't use Deus Ex Machina as I recall even though he favored the omniscient POV to reinforce his pessemistic view, like Hardy's, that we are alone. More common in British lit, I think. I think Jane Austen would be another omniscient example who pulls out a few surprises.

Bernita said...

Book, I don't think the why's of the writer as in cop-out or corner-painting matter a sweet damn.
If they are in a corner, they should revise their way out of it.
But I agree there's got to be a certain logic, even if it's just internal.

Thank you, Dave!
I am so sick of backstory angst as a replacement for character development.
Redlines and Deadlines ( has a post on the topic.

Bill, I couldn't stand Tess.
Can't remember and may be wrong (been a long time since American Lit), but didn't Dreiser follow Hardy with that theme?

raine said...

Definitely one of my "oh noes!" in reading.
And I agree it's usually a matter of the author having painted themselves into a corner. Have done so myself. But I also realized what I'd done, and went back and made necessary adjustments in the storyline, rather than pulling a convenient rabbit out of some cosmic hat.
One very popular author I read last year had inflicted all sorts of physical, emotional, and paranormal woes upon her protagonists during the story. There didn't seem any way to achieve a HEA, so I read on, curious to see how she'd manage it.
Her solution? Bring in a goddess-figure at the very end to wave her wand and heal all wounds, because the young lovers had suffered enough.
Definite wallbanger.

Bernita said...

Definitely a wall-banger, Raine!
~arggh, arghh~
Makes for passive characters.

BernardL said...

The funniest one I ever read or saw was the aliens scooping up the main character in Monte Python's 'Life of Brian'. :)

Bernita said...

DEM does lend itself to satire, Bernard.

Robyn said...

I don't mind the deities as a catalyst- "we're on a quest from God" type thing- but I agree, the intervention save seems lazy.

As for suffering, I've seen too many authors that don't understand that we don't need a fourth act. After a while, it's just too depressing. Like Tess, I gave up on Gabaldon's Jamie. The poor guy was a walking scar by the end of the second book, and I really didn't want to see him go through any more.

Bernita said...

I agree, Robyn, some of our best stories have divine catalysts.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right and folks are more forgiving when the out of left field event comes from the villain. It's probably because their main focus is on the hero. Good point that it should be any different, though.

I like diabolus ex machina. Cool.

Gabriele C. said...

To me, omnisicent it the way to give the bad guys - and girls - a motivation and avoid making them diabolus ex machina. And now, it's not always a crappy childhood; Kazimira and Saldis both had a happy one and still turns into bad girls, or at least girls who cause a damn lot of trouble.

Steve Malley said...

There *is* one element of accountability to Diabolous ex Machina: Conflict vs. Complication.

General Rule: You can get your protag into trouble by coincidence, but not out.

Refinement: That 'trouble' should be related to story's central conflict. Otherwise, it's churning suspense for its own sake. Even in 'everything-goes-wrong' comedies, the mishaps all relate to keeping Percy from the dance, or whatever.

Weather, of course, may turn against us at any time...

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles.

I have nothing against omniscient, Gabriele, but it's not the only way to show motivation.

Steve, to quote Nero Wolfe, in a world largely ruled by cause and effect, all coincidence is suspect.

Gabriele C. said...

What I meant is that I don't agree with the fact that omniscient is more prone to creating diaboli ex machina. It's not the POV but the role the author wants Evil to play in a book.

Ello said...

This was fascinating because I don't think I ever even thought about this issue until now. I personally hated Tess of the D'ubervilles because it was unrelenting crapfest on the poor girl. It reminds me to much of Korean tragedies where every film has to have the most overwhelming, horrific things happen to the MC, disease, hurricane, car crash, etc, and inevitably they always die. So overwhelming!

Bernita said...

No problem, Gabriele.

So bloody depressing, Ello. Who needs it? Catharsis can be overdone.

writtenwyrdd said...

YOu make a great point there: We really need to provide a consistent logic for the actions in our stories. Maybe we don't spell it out specifically, but the writing has to communicate the existence of these things of importance (reason for characters to be in conflict or the evil genious to be evil, a dark past, sufferings that lead to bad decisions, etc.). If it doesn't, then the reader is scratching her head and thinking WTF? Or just not buying into the next plot twist.

In a sense, it feels like the author is either stupid or has cheated me deliberately when this sort of thing happens.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.
If something comes "out of the blue" it might be nice, on occasion, to have the characters reflect an astonishment parallel to the reader's surprise.

Demon Hunter said...

Great post, Bernita! :*) One of my betas pointed out what could be construed as deux ex machina in my novel. So just to avoid any confusion, I'm cleaning up that entire situation...

Billy said...

Bernita, Dreiser did indeed follow Hardy down that path. You get an A+. -:)

Bernita said...

My Demon, I often have to go back and make sure I've planted all the proper little clues and hints.

Hee, Billy!
(I probably got only a B- at the time - but then I thought Dos Passos was very funny.)

Price of Silence said...

I'm really impressed by the level of discussion on this blog. Re Dreiser in Sister Carrie, I don't think he threw stuff at her just for the sake of it. She does, after all, drag herself out of poverty by virtue of sleeping with the right men and hard work and luck. Haven't read Tess, so I can't compare, but I think Dreiser was simply commenting on the recurring sadness of life. Especially with the last line: "In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel." I think "may" is key there. He's not condemning her to sadness, just saying it's likely.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Price.
People you may all take a bow!

Sam said...

I don't appreciate Deux ex machina at all - and I see so many films that suffer that fate, and it just Ruins them for me. Argh! It really does drive me mad.

And I'm with you on the reasoning part that makes a mystery book function - I'm always poking holes in plots, I hate the ones 'Sewn up with white thread', as they say here in France!

Bernita said...

An interesting, visual idiom, Sam!

spyscribbler said...

Diabolus ex machina ... I love that! I never put two and two together like that, but I can think of three examples, lately, where it drove me crazy.

I mean, sometimes it feels like the villain is saying to himself, "It's the end of the book, so I need to do the most evil, climactic thing I can think of." And, of course, they do it in a way where they'll be caught.

Also ... what would you call it? Stupidus ex machina? Where the villain gets stupider as the book goes along, so the hero/ine can catch him/her by the end?

writtenwyrdd said...

For a laugh, you can check out the site, Evil Overlord Devises a Plot at or this one, the Grand List of Overused Plot Devices, at Hilarious, but also provides much food for villianous stupidous and related faux pax's.

Bernita said...

"Stupidus ex machina? Where the villain gets stupider as the book goes along..."
Oh, oh, excellent Natasha!

villianous stupidous ...
Perfect, Written, and to the point.
Thank you!