Deus Ex Machina

Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!

Time for some more edumacationableness. You’re writing your script and everything is going great!…that is until you can’t figure out how to end your story. Don’t worry though! With this cop out ending, you’ll have your script finished in no time! What’s that? You already know what “Deus Ex Machina” is? Well aren’t you the cat’s pajamas? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing how much of a cool cat you are and go get yourself a pair of snazzy jeans! Mention my blog’s name at the register, and you’ll be kicked out of the store immediately for wasting that poor employee’s time. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.

What is Deus Ex Machina?

Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase that translates to “god from the machine”. Back in the days of early Greek tragedies, the term was coined as a reference to when a crane lowered the actors playing gods down to the stage.

It refers to a moment in the story where there is an impossible to solve problem. The characters are about to meet their untimely demise with no hope of rescue. Suddenly, an out of nowhere force, very irrelevant to the story on occasion, comes in to save the day.

Let’s take a look at a classic example of a godly force within Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indiana Jones and Marion have been kidnapped and the Nazis have the Ark of the Covenant, the object that will make them invincible. All seems lost as they open the Ark, ready to receive its power!…but then deus ex machina kicks in. Angels of death appear from the Ark, killing everyone in sight, except for Jones and Marion. As you can see, Jones was in an impossible situation, which was solved literally by a godly force.

While the phrase does translate to god, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to involve a god. Take a look at the movie Toy Story 3.

All of the toys are in the furnace, ready to be incinerated. Everything seems hopeless as the toys hold hands, ready to face their fate…until good old deus ex machina kicks in! A giant claw operated by the pizza planet aliens drops down to save the toys in the knick of time. In this case, there was no godly force, but rather a machine that saved the day. Notice how that ending really came out of nowhere? Sure, “the claw” is a reference to the first movie, but it’s never implied it will save them two movies later. That’s a major element of deus ex machina; the fact that the force that saves the heroes has little to nothing to do with the story.

Another great example is Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The Evil Queen has done it! She poisoned Snow White and has secured her position as FAIREST OF THEM ALL! The dwarves and animals chase after her as she’s cornered on a cliff. Luckily for the queen, there is a giant boulder that is just begging to be rolled off the cliff. Just when she’s about to play some dwarf bowling to secure her victory, a lightning bolt of deus ex machina strikes the cliff, causing her to fall and the boulder to land on her. No foreshadowing this ending, she failed because she didn’t watch the forecast.

So does deus ex machina work in fiction? Hmm…it depends. If you’re looking at films for an older audience, then it could be perceived as a cop out. If the protagonist isn’t capable of defeating the antagonist, then it really doesn’t allow for any sort of growth or development. In films for a much younger audience though, I would say yes. You want the heroes to win, but you don’t want them to be the ones to kill the villain. If that occurs then kids would be rooting for a murderer to win the day, now wouldn’t they? Using deus ex machina allows for the heroes to be victorious but still providing a way for the villain to get what’s coming to them.


But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.


So what do you all think? Any favorite uses of deus ex machina? Do you feel that deus ex machina shouldn’t be used? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.