One of the challenges script writers face when creating a piece for the big screen or small screen is writing a perfect resolution for the conflict generated on the pages the script. No matter how amazing the plot, prose, and characterization of a film script is, it can all crumble if the third act that resolves the conflict is poorly executed.
While many writers have the skill and talent to bring a story to a natural conclusion without any bizarre intervention, some writers often choose to make use of one of the most overused trope available in creative writing: the deus ex machina.
What Does Deus ex Machina Mean?
A deus ex machina is described as a plot device used in scriptwriting where a conflict that looks unsolvable suddenly becomes resolved by external intervention. This intervention can either be in the form of an improbable character or event.
An audience is easily able to identify the use of a deus ex machina in a movie not only because it is so glaring when it pops up, but also because its occurrence often leads to a complete change in the direction of the story.
Often times, when the deus ex machina is used in movies, it helps to save dire situations in order to bring about happy endings. The fact that it can be easily used to change the outcome of an event in a movie makes it one of the most criticized tropes in the movie industry.
The Deus ex Machina Trope and its Criticism
The use of deus ex machina in movies continues to be consistent in Hollywood with writers opting for this “lazy device” rather than applying their expertise to come up with ideal resolutions for story conflicts.
One of the reasons why this popular trope can be easily identified is that it is commonly used when writers draw blanks on how to end their scripts, or when they know the story’s ending but simply can’t find a way to bring the story to that point.
The criticism that the deus ex machina trope receives is definitely valid though most often times, the plot device itself isn’t really the true offender; rather, it’s the terrible writers who make use of the trope in bizarre manners to resolve the conflicts in their stories.
Critics remain convinced that this writing element has no place in movies, citing two very important reasons why the use of a deus ex machina is a horrible writing choice.
First and foremost, the deus ex machina is often used in movies to salvage plots that are very poor and filled with plot holes. When a poorly writing script stalls at the third act without an internal resolution to the conflict in sight, the writer’s next course of action is to invent a resolution from an external source.
When deus ex machina is used in movies, it acts like some sort of magnifying glass that draws focus on the flaws in the plot, which may have remained hidden from the audience up to the point of the trope’s appearance.
Another issue critics have with the use of the trope is that it ruins any sort of realism a movie has conveyed prior to the trope’s appearance. This is especially the case when a conflict is resolved by an absurd event that is completely unexplained and unrealistic. An example of this trope being implemented is in the much revered blockbuster hit, The Matrix, where a distraught Trinity plants a passionate kiss on Neo’s lips to miraculously bring him back to life and give him god-like powers.
Tips on How to Properly Make Use of Deus ex Machina in Movies
Despite all the criticism and condemnation, the deus ex machina does bring some positives to table especially when it is expertly executed by a writer who isn’t desperate to bring a story to its conclusion using any means possible.
Here are two ways to properly write a deus ex machina in movies without being ridiculous. These tips are also accompanied by real applications in movies.
If the deus ex machina is to be implemented in a movie, then it must be properly foreshadowed in the scenes leading up to the resolution. The writer can either make mention of the intervening element through the characters or have the element be a passive part of the story’s background. Doing this makes the appearance of the element shocking to the audience yet still believable and also entertaining.
A typical example of a properly foreshadowed deus ex machina is seen in the Lord of the Rings movie where the giant eagles come to the rescue of the little hobbits. The existence of the eagles has already been established earlier in the movie and their emergence while surprising, was quite believable.
When a deus ex machina is properly foreshadowed, the audience often reacts with the expression: “should have seen that coming”, instead of the usual look of shocking disdain.
Another way a writer can ensure that he or she doesn’t go overboard with the implementation of a deus ex machina trope is by making certain that the resolution being introduced is grounded in realism. Writing a realistic resolution to a conflict helps increase the believability of the event, making the trope look less bizarre than it probably is.
An example of this application of deus ex machina is seen in the Academy Award winning masterpiece, The Departed, which uses the plot device when Jack Nicholson’s character is suddenly revealed as an FBI informant, causing Matt Daemon’s character, his protégé, to shoot him despite the strong bond they had.
A dilemma that bothers many on this subject is whether this plot device can still be called the deus ex machina if it is properly executed without any of aforementioned flaws apparent. Regardless of what the right answer is, one thing is certain; a properly executed deus ex machina succeeds in masking its introduction from the audience even though it is there for all to see and identify.