You may have heard of “deus ex machina” endings in novels before. What are they? What’s wrong with them? And how do you avoid them?
Let’s start with a definition. According to Wikipedia, a deus ex machina ending is…
a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.
The literal translation is “god from the machinery” and it derives from Ancient Greek theater. The characters in the play would get themselves into a terrible mess, and the only way to sort it out was for the gods (or actors playing the gods) to emerge from the “machinery” of the stage and put the world to right again with their divine powers.
For our own plotting purposes, a deus ex machina ending means a contrived, awkward or unbelievable ending. It’s one which fails to flow naturally and logically from the events that came before it.
An Example of a Deus ex Machina Ending
Imagine a detective in a good old-fashioned Whodunnit. We’ll call him Smith.
Now, we know that Smith will unmask the murderer by the end of the novel (because that’s what happens in crime fiction). But for this unmasking to satisfy to the reader, the name of the guilty party must come to Smith as a result of his own skills and efforts.
Smith spends the bulk of the novel searching for clues, interviewing suspects, piecing together the evidence. In short, he does all the things a detective usually does in a crime novel.
Sure, he makes mistakes as he goes. And his initial thoughts and theories are proved wrong. But the reader has faith that his skills will eventually lead him to the truth.
And eventually Smith would have discovered the identity of the murderer, if his creator had been any good at plotting novels. Unfortunately, though, the writer calls in the “gods” and settles on a contrived ending instead.
Smith, you see, has reached a seemingly hopeless situation…
All of his leads have come to nothing. To solve the crime, he needs a mental breakthrough (one of those moments in old-fashioned crime novels when the detective suddenly exclaims…
Of course, they did it with mirrors!
But instead of Smith experiencing an epiphany of this sort (which is what the reader hopes for and expects), we get a deus ex machina ending…
Smith just happens to walk in on the murderer in the process of strangling his latest victim. The killer is arrested, Smith gets a pat on the back, and everyone is happy. Everyone except for the novel’s unsatisfied readers, of course.
Why are they left unsatisfied?
Because the crime was solved through Smith just happening to be in the right place at the right time, totally by chance.
The resolution came about because of forces outside the detective’s control (by the Ancient Greek god of “luck”, if you like). It didn’t happen as a result of his own skills and efforts. That difference is critical.
So How Do You Avoid a Deus ex Machina Ending?
Keep the “gods” out of it. Leave it to the mortals in the novel to sort out their own problems. In practical terms, that means two things…
First, make sure that the eventual solution to the novel’s problem comes about because of the character’s own efforts. Whatever “breakthrough” happens in the third act of the novel, it needs to be an effect of something the character did or thought earlier in the story.
Second, plant “clues” to the resolution along the way, so it seems believable and logical to readers when it happens. If the resolution happens out of the blue, you’ll have a deus ex machina ending. And that’s not good!
To learn more about avoiding a contrived ending, check out the article on how to plot a novel’s ending. You’ll find plenty of examples there on how to make the ending believable and natural.