It’s Latin for Cop Out

deusexmachina NOTE: Given the nature of the topic, there are spoilers for various books and series throughout the text.

The other day I happened to catch an episode of the TV show Monday Mornings in rerun, and one of the characters mentioned deus ex machina. What caught my attention was how he pronounced it – DAY-oos eks MAH-kee-nah. I realized, then, that I didn’t recall ever having heard that phrase spoken out loud before and that all of this time, I’ve been mentally pronouncing it incorrectly. My high school and college French had me thinking it as dus oh mah-SHEEN-a. I felt really stupid at my mistake but also very educated because now I can jauntily throw that phrase about with the correct Latin pronunciation. Bonus: spelling it is now a piece of cake.

Unfortunately, knowing how to say it doesn’t make me like it any better. For those unfamiliar with the expression, deus ex machina is Latin meaning “god from the machine”. I personally think it’s just a fancy way of saying “cop out.”

Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy and in-depth discussion of this writing device, but to sum up, it’s when a writer introduces some new or unexpected element to solve a problem for which he or she sees no other solution. He’s painted himself into a storytelling corner, put his hero in a dire situation for which there seems no escape, and to end things on a happy note, he introduces a new magical power or a heretofore unknown character or, heck, the entire U.S. Marine Corps (in a historical set in 1693!) to rescue the guy from certain death. If you aren’t afraid to venture into this guaranteed time-suck of a site, check out TV Tropes for a long list of great examples.

Fairytales, some of the most enduring and ancient stories out there, commonly employ the deus ex machina to create a happy ending. Prince Charming arrives out of nowhere to kiss Snow White and bring her back from death. His literary cousin does the same to wake Sleeping Beauty. The woodsman happens upon Grandma’s cottage just in time to rescue Red Riding Hood from the jaws of the wolf. It seems that spontaneous solutions were the most common way to end these tales on an upbeat note.

TV shows and movies are littered with deus ex machina, sometimes used to reset a story when things have gone too far off the rails. The most famous example might be Bobby Ewing’s appearance in a shower after he’d been dead for over a year on Dallas, the whole situation explained away as a bad dream. Jane Granville noted that in the movie Dodgeball, the writers make fun of the trope by pulling a completely out-of-left-field plot twist actually labeled “deux ex machina”.

Blythe pointed out that even literary classics aren’t immune to the easy fix. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities allowed a character to escape execution by offering up a noble soul who looked exactly like him (what are the chances?) to die in his place. When wandering the lonely English countryside heartbroken, lost, sick and confused, Jane Eyre was conveniently rescued by none other than her long lost cousins. Some discussion could be had arguing that the writers of these times truly did believe that God or the gods (deus) had a hand in a character’s fate, thus such solutions weren’t necessarily to be considered unexpected or far-fetched.

When I asked my fellow reviewers if they had some examples of modern day romances that employ deus ex machina, it seems we’ve all experienced it in some form or another.

Generally, deus ex machina in romance novels with more traditional happy endings often tend to come in the form of the death of an extraneous love interest. Hero or heroine already married when he/she meets the true love of his/her life? A sudden death is most likely in store for the hapless spouse. The excellent romance-novel-come-to-TV Downton Abbey conjured the deadly Spanish Influenza to dispatch the inconvenient Lavinia so that fan favorites Matthew and Mary could be together guilt-free. I think this over-used form of deus ex machina stems from the fact that writers in this genre tend to want to avoid any suggestion that their heroes might be guilty of adultery, and thus any loose ends must be firmly and irrevocably tied off – a sure thing with death as the ultimate solution.

The use of deus ex machina doesn’t have to be that dramatic, of course. Inheritances come at just the right moment to solve money woes. Family members thought dead turn out to be alive. Unknown relationships create alliances that allow deadly wars to be averted. No true crisis can’t be averted by some happy coincidence that puts just what the characters need within easy reach.

One example of possible deus ex machina seemed to divide the AAR team – that of the solution Stephenie Meyer employed to save broken-hearted Jacob Black from a life of pining after Bella Swan when she chose the Edward side of their famous love triangle. Some of us consider Jacob’s imprinting on Bella and Edward’s baby daughter, Renesmee, to be deus ex machina in grotesque form. In effect, all of this time Jacob had been in love not so much with Bella but with her eggs. Not only did this explanation negate a great portion of the previous books and severely weaken the impact of the love triangle, it caused many readers to squirm in discomfort with the idea of a practically grown man “falling in love” with an infant, even if he presumably would wait until she came of age to act on his feelings towards her. The ewww factor alone is fodder for an entire series of blog posts.

However, others thought that Meyer had always intended for Jacob to imprint on Renesmee, and thus his love for Bella was never more than a temporary transference. I suppose your level of cynicism might dictate your interpretation, suffice it to say that many found the situation to be less than organic.

A form of deus ex machina that Heather Stanton brought up as especially problematic is that of a built-in story god with the power to solve problems as needed. She mentioned the Scribe Virgin of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood in particular because more than one of the titles in this series ends with the Scribe Virgin either undoing a problem completely or introducing new world-building aspects to solve the problem. Those who were tempted to throw their books at the wall when Doc Jane became a ghost will understand the level of frustration this can cause. Indeed, constantly changing and adding world-building elements in order to solve problems is a flaw that, if found in paranormals or urban fantasies, will cause me to not finish the book or give it a low grade if I’m forced to finish it.

In the end, it seems readers have an aversion to stories in which heroes and/or heroines don’t have to earn their way out of their problems. If the natural consequences of a person’s actions or unfortunate twists of fate can simply be erased at the last minute by the wave of a writer’s magic wand, any investment we’ve put into the character’s plight and the outcome of the story’s conflict feels wasted. It’s as if we’ve been cheated out of the fantastic ending we’ve been toiling for right alongside our heroes.

How do you feel about deus ex machina as a way for a writer to solve an unsolvable problem? Is it ever acceptable? Are there any examples you’ve found that ruined an otherwise decent story?

-Jenna Harper

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25 Responses to “It’s Latin for Cop Out”

  1. pwnn says:

    >>Blythe pointed out that even literary classics aren’t immune to the easy fix. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities allowed a character to escape execution by offering up a noble soul who looked exactly like him (what are the chances?) to die in his place. <<

    But its not. We are told almost from the start that Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton have a strong physical resemblance and Carton's death certainly doesn't make everything all right – it's noble but completely heart breakingly tragic. A true duex ex machhina would have been having The Scarlet Pimpernel show up out of the blue without previous mention in time and rescue Carton from the gallows.

    • pwnn says:

      Er not gallows – guillotine.

    • Blythe says:

      True that it’s not a last minute thing so much as a completely unlikely and unbelievable coincidence. But it’s still an easy fix, IMHO.

      • etv13 says:

        It’s not an “easy fix” because it’s an organic part of Sydney Carton’s character arc, and he’s one of the major characters in the book.

        • JulieLeto says:

          A TALE OF TWO CITIES begins with the fact that Sydney and Charles look the same physically. The similarity is how Charles’s lawyer gets him off on a charge of espionage at the beginning of the novel (by putting doubt on an “eye witness’s” testimony. It is how Sydney and Charles first meet and is the basis for Sydney looking at his life and realizing that though he looks like Darnay, they could not be more different. It is an underlying theme that drives his unrequited love for Lucy. Dickens laid this out in the plot from the get-go. There are many examples of God in the Machine, but this is not one of them. At all.

  2. I agree with your title. It’s a cop out of the “with one bound he was free” variety. And you can pronounce it any way you like. Nobody knows how Latin was pronounced, because the language died a long time ago. At school I was taught to pronounced all the “v”‘s as “w”‘s, which people don’t do any more. The joke about “weeny, weedy and weaky” doesn’t work without that, but people don’t do that any more!
    The Scribe Virgin is so much deus ex machina that I sometimes wonder if Ward isn’t having a joke with us. And I agree with pwnn, the end is in the beginning in “Tale of Two Cities.” It doesn’t pop up out of the blue to cure a plot knot the author has got himself into. It’s baked in from the start.

  3. Jo-Ann W. says:

    Oh, yes, the very, very busy Scribe Virgin. After Jane became a ghost (though not the Scribe’s first DEM), it took me years to pick up that series again, I was so peeved. Not to mention I loathe ghost elements. Ward’s other stellar cop out was teasing us with the Vishous and Butch storyline.

    However, the most memorable (and book ruining) cop out for me was in Judith Ivory’s The Proposition. SPOILER>>>>> When Mick turned out to be the long lost son of some titled, rich guy. OMG. Most unbelievable blatant cop out EVER.

    • Noelie says:

      I was just thinking about The Proposition while reading this.

    • etv13 says:

      See, I’ve never been certain Mick really IS the long-lost son, and I think Ivory left that uncertainty there deliberately. Also, the thing that sets the whole plot of The Proposition rolling is those guys in the teashop who want to get something out of the lost-heir situation. They aren’t there by accident.

  4. Jenna says:

    I see your point about The Tale of Two Cities, and that perhaps it doesn’t follow the true definition of deus ex machina in that the solution didn’t come completely out of nowhere. But I agree with Blythe in that setting up this coincidence strains the suspension of disbelief almost to breaking. What are the chances that two men who look *exactly* alike – enough that they are virtually interchangeable – both live in Paris at the same time and encounter each other in such a way as for their body swap to take place? Maybe that’s a great topic – when does coincidence move into deus ex machina?

    • Elizabeth Rolls says:

      Are Carton and d’Evremonde EXACTLY alike? Or is it just a very strong resemblance? It’s a very long time since I read A Tale of Two Cities.
      I ran into a woman many years ago who looked very like me. We had a good laugh over it, discussed our family trees, but couldn’t find any surnames in common. So as a coincidence this one doesn’t bother me particularly. However I do recall blinking a few times when Jane Eyre miraculously turned out to have collapsed on her unknown cousins’ doorstep.

      • JulieLeto says:

        I just read it recently with my daughter. They look enough alike that the testimony of an eye witness who identifies Darnay as a spy is discounted in an English court. See my comment above. It’s all very fresh in my mind as I read this last month! (Also, I’m a former English teacher…deus ex machina is something I covered extensively!) And yes, the Scribe Virgin IS often used in this manner.

  5. Christine says:

    I think pwnn summed up the difference between Deus Ex Machina and a cop out or just stretching the heck out of plausibility. For me a Deus Ex Machina has to be something that has no set up or mention previously in the book. Like the mechanical hand of God in the end of the Medieval morality plays it just sweeps in and saves. A lot of the books mentioned aren’t D.E.M. for me because the solutions have some set ups in the books. They don’t come out of nowhere.

    A lot of times, like the J.R. Ward books where the canon is seemingly rewritten or the author waters down the characters or their actions in later books (The Duke’s Perfect Wife) it’s a retcon. Remember when Han shot Greedo first?

  6. I think the real deus ex machina is something or someone that pops up to solve everybody’s problems, without prior warning or any preparation. Dickens works towards his inevitable ending, and it starts with a coincidence, which is something else entirely.

    • Caroline says:

      I agree. I think of the Tale of Two Cities example as more representative of the concept of Chekhov’s Gun – “”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

  7. dick says:

    Well, hey, they worked pretty well in Greek drama as in “Oedipus at Colonus.” In romance though, I think the term cop out more applicable, although applying “deus ex machina” might make the event more palatable. I admire Balogh greatly, but a large number of her trads employ the device–”Tempting Harriet” comes immediately to mind.

  8. Carrie says:

    There are two schools of thought for Latin pronunciation: Classical and Ecclesiastical (0r “Church) Latin. Depends on where you learned and who’s doing the teaching. We don’t know for sure the pronunciation of the language. Church Latin gives the letters an Italian pronunciation and Classical Latin has the “hard” sounds for the “ch” and such. it doesn’t really matter which you choose since it isn’t a spoken language accept in completely orchestrated situations.

    Good post, btw. ;-)

  9. Carrie says:

    Wanted to add: While I probably go along with the convenient plot twists more often than not, I do hate it when characters conveniently die to make way for the “real” lovers. Besides the adultery, which I also dislike, I stopped reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books because she had Russ’s wife of 25 years conveniently die. COP OUT!!

    • mb says:

      Me too, Carrie! I felt SO manipulated by that all too convenient death. It was a very good series up to that point, but I couldn’t read further after that.

      Great example.

      • Emily A says:

        Me three! Just read that one where she dies, but am nervous about trying the rest of the series.
        For me the quintessential deus ex machina is Cinderella. She sitting there crying and out pops good ol’ fairy godmother to help her get to the ball and land a husband! Why couldn’t she have shown up when there were dishes to be done, fireplaces to be swept, laundry to fold, etc.?
        I sometimes like the deus ex machina. I can’t think of a good example, but I don’t think it’s always a cop out. There are Deus Ex Machina’s in life. Someone wins the lotto. Two people accidently meet at a gas station or on elevator or airplane, etc. Someone accidently hits with their car someone else or someone else’s car. Someone who didn’t know it has a heart attack and/or a brain annuerism and dies, etc.
        I think for me it depends on the plausibility of the plot point and/or how emotionally connected I am to the characters and want to them to be happy. But I agree its a plot devise that is best used sparingly.

  10. Carol Lowe says:

    I can’t seem to cite an example at the moment, but how often do women in romance novels have miscarriages of inconvenient babies when to do otherwise would have brought up the abortion issue? The only one I can think of at the moment was SEP’s This Heart of Mine and that one wouldn’t have been an abortion of the baby but would have curtailed the storyline pretty quickly.

    • etv13 says:

      Joan Wolf’s His Lordship’s Mistress is another convenient miscarriage, though I doubt avoiding an abortion was really in the author’s mind.

    • Elizabeth Rolls says:

      Well, sure. But miscarriages do happen, perhaps more often than we realise. I have several friends who have suffered one or more, or come very close. And however you look at it, a miscarriage is always going to cause a certain amount of trauma for the woman. Really, you could say this about almost any plot – “If such and such hadn’t happened …” If Jane Eyre’s Gateshead relations hadn’t been such revolting specimens, there wouldn’t have been a story. If Pip hadn’t gone out that evening and met Magwitch, there wouldn’t have been a story. If David Copperfield’s mother hadn’t been such a blithering idiot as to marry Mr Murdstone, and so on.
      If you ask me, miscarriages are a jolly sight more common than relatives of the vileness quotient exhibited by Jane’s relations, and just how many convicts, who are going to become filthy rich, can you meet in a marsh? Would like to say I am very fond of all the aforementioned books!
      Given that abortion is such a hot button issue for so many people one way or the other, you can hardly blame authors for stepping around it. It’s one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t, issues. You’re going to upset or offend someone whatever your character decides.

      • Carol Lowe says:

        Elizabeth, I agree with everything you are saying and I certainly don’t take miscarriages lightly. It just seems that I will be thinking “Boy, a baby is sure going to mess up this plot” and lo and behold..a miscarriage.

  11. Lilly says:

    Authors pull this the other way, too, stretching incredulity conjuring up out of thin air more trouble, danger or bad luck for their protagonist than Joe Btfsplk, so they can have some conflict to resolve.