Deus ex Machina and Foreshadowing: Advice for Writers

Deus ex machina.

It’s pronounced “DAY-us EX MAH-kin-a”, and you’ve probably seen the term before.

The literal translation is “God from a Machine”, and it comes from ancient times when the Greeks would put on plays and introduce one of the gods to the story, bringing the actor to the stage on some sort of machine (a crane or a riser from the floor). Oftentimes, the god appeared to resolve conflict and save the day without being mentioned at any point earlier in the story. It was a convenient and easy way to wrap up a tale.

But we’ve come a long way, baby.

Deus ex machina is now seen as a pathetic plot device used by amateurs who don’t plan for the ending of their book (ask me how I REALLY feel about it). At the last minute, when it seems doom is imminent for the main character, suddenly…they realize they have the ability to fly! And they escape the bad guy. The End.

Agents will not like this. Editors will not like this. Readers will not like this.

This is why we have foreshadowing. When your reader gets to the point where the main character resolves the conflict, it must be believable. To make it believable, you must have left an impression in the reader’s mind that such an event was bound to happen based on the events that preceded it.

Example, you ask? Of course.

The Hunger Games: (spoilers follow–but not for the sequel, Catching Fire)

When the Games get down to just the two contestants from District 12 (Katniss and Peeta), the Capitol announces that only one contestant will survive (earlier they’d been told if both contestants from a district were the last standing, they’d both win). Since neither Kat nor Peeta wants to kill the other, Kat devises a plan that they will both pretend to eat a poison berry and die, meaning no winner for the Games. As soon as they put the berries in their mouths, the Capitol changes their mind AGAIN and announces them both the winners.

Foreshadowing Points:

  • Through stories from Kat about the kind things Peeta has done for her and by seeing her and Peeta in action, you understand that it would NEVER be possible for them to kill each other.
  • Earlier in the story, Peeta had picked several of the berries, thinking they were edible, and one of the other contestants had tried to sneak some of them to eat. Kat and Peeta saw her die and knew the berries were poisonous, and Kat put a couple in her pocket just in case she might need to use them on another contestant later.
  • Throughout the story, the Capitol is perceived as being all about appearance and keeping up their image. Kat knew there would be a massive uproar if NOBODY won the Hunger Games, so she used that to her advantage. It was also made known throughout the novel that the audience LOVES Kat and Peeta. If neither of them won, there would be serious outrage.

Your foreshadowing points should add depth and detail to the story. They shouldn’t seem forced into the text.
“I’d better keep this knife hidden in my boot at all times. Who knows when I might need it to resolve a conflict?”

The audience should sense the foreshadowing but not focus on it. Uusually, this means reiterating your conflict resolver SEVERAL times through the story. If you mention a hidden knife once at the beginning of the book, the audience won’t remember it at the end.

For more on foreshadowing, check out this post on my livejournal.

joiconJo Whittemore

(Reproduced from http://jo-no-anne.livejournal.com)

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Deus ex Machina and Foreshadowing: Advice for Writers

  1. Duex ex machina is still accepted in the fantasy genre and only if it actually IS a god and only if said god exacts a high price for his/her assistance. But it’s still considered cheap. :)

  2. A good blog post, though I had to skip past the “Hunger Games” bit since I haven’t read it yet. I plan to very soon, DEM or not. :)

    • Ha! Luckily, Suzanne Collins is a good enough writer to avoid the DEM. And get thee started on Hunger Games! And then get thee started on Catching Fire! We’ll be talking about it here soon.

  3. Really great post, Jo! You explain it very well.

  4. Someone in a workshop on endings once pointed out to me that DEM endings are not only acceptable but somewhat expected in one genre: inspirational. Exactly how much that overlaps with speculative fiction or fantasy is another topic (that would probably start a fight, ha ha.)

  5. The DEM in The Hunger Games did give me pause; it seemed more about the vicious whimsy of the Capitol than the author manipulating things, but I wasn’t buying it entirely. While I did like the book, I am eager to read on to the next one to see if I was right to be skeptical!

    *ducks, waits for things to be thrown*

    • LOL, Tanita! I’ll hold off on throwing things at you. Read book 2 and then we can talk :)

      I see what you mean about HUNGER GAMES though it did work for me. I see it set up with things being placed to make it work, but I was willing to buy it.

  6. Hey, I found your blog while searching on Google your post looks very interesting for me. I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work! :)

  7. Looks like you are a true professional. Did you study about the topic? haha

  8. Larry_Rollins

    Are you kidding me. “Hunger Games” are FILLED with examples of shameless Deus ex machina.

    SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

    Examples.

    Peeta saves Katniss while she is trying to get the bow. Gets injured cut horribly and Cato never tracks the blood… Never explains how he escaped.

    Tracker Jackers in the tree when Katniss is surrounded…

    Thresh apprears and saves Katniss, again when she is in a hopeless situation… (are you kidding me, we don’t even know him).

    Changing the Rules suddenly to two can win.

    Sudden appearance of burn cream…

    Those are just the ones I can think of off of the top of my head….

  9. Pingback: Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann Reviewed

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