Background: I know to avoid Deus Ex Machinas - meaning to me a sudden and unexpected solution arriving out of nowhere to save an otherwise unsolvable problem. They are often indicative of a writer who has written himself into a corner, and has to rely on a DXM to get him out of the pickle he's in.

There are two answers to dealing with a DXM. The first is obviously to rework the plot, and the main conflict, so that there is a way to solve it. If that's not an option, and you have to use the DXM, you have to spread clues throughout the book as to its existence, so that when it is revealed it is a great twist rather than a DXM.

I recently ran into a DXM situation in my current tale. In trying to solve the problem, I arrived at an interesting form of DXM, and was curious if it would still be considered a DXM, or if it would instead be a good twist.

The good guy and his band of faithful followers (at least what's left of them) has hit rock bottom. All options have been closed off in their attempts to get the plot device. In a hail Mary attempt, they've struck at the heart of the enemy's defenses, where he holds all fifteen of the plot devices. If they can get even just one, they'll have enough bargaining power to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, they are captured. At this point, the bad guy could easily execute them. And this is where the DXM comes in.

Lo! The villain doesn't want to kill them. The villain has recently conquered all of the land, and executing his enemies would only inspire fear in his new subjects. He wishes to rule through peace, not fear. He therefore decides instead to pardon them, and use the fifteen plot devices to fulfill their goals.

Reasoning: Now that sounds really bad, but here's the thing: killing the good guy makes no sense whatsoever. The good guy and his companions were never much of a threat to the antagonist. He might have been forced to kill them while they were free and active, but now that they are captured and right in front of him, there's no point.

This antagonist is not an inherently bad person. He's driven and very focused on keeping all fifteen plot devices, but now that he has them, he is intent on using them to rule his new land with peace, not fear. He is no tyrant, and doesn't want to be seen as one. He knows that executing his enemies will spread fear and dissent amongst those he now rules, while pardoning them will turn him into a generous benefactor among his new subjects.

One final point is that granting the goals of the good guy and his companions also conveniently gets rid of them: they in fact desire to leave the land altogether, and the fifteen plot devices are the way home.

Question: Based on all this, it makes no sense to kill them. Because of this, is the sudden reversal of attitude on the villain's part simply a twist? Or is it still going to seem like a DXM, and perhaps turn off readers?

What this question is not: This is not a 'how to write' question, where I'm asking for alternative solutions to solving the main conflict. Similarly, I'm not asking for advice on how to work the plot so that seems like less of a DXM. This question is asking if this twist, as it is and with what I have provided (so assuming there's no other hints about it), would still be considered a DXM even after it is explained. (I'm assuming it will seem like one at first no matter what I do. It comes down to how the reader sees it once he understands how illogical the alternative [killing the good guys] is.)

Also note that this question can easily help other writers with a DXM where the alternative is illogical. I am using my own writing purely as an example.

  • Is this a final twist or a mid-story crisis?
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 21:31
  • @Alexander This is at the end of Act II, the twist which solves the 'rock bottom' moment. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 21:40
  • I don't think this is a DEM, because it's due to the logical decision of an established character.
    – J.G.
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:45
  • Here's a better twist for you: antagonist gives them what they want but lies to the public they have all died heroically by trying to storm his fortress. Why were they trying to storm his fortress? Because he was locked there under duress, after a coup. His vizier took over and ruled and conquered under his name. Now that the vizier is dead, the antagonist can turn over a new leaf, without that looking like being out of character. Of course, that's the story for the public. And it is just my opinion.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:30
  • An example of a novel with exactly the same event you describe is "Son of Heaven", first book of the Chung Kuo series by David Wingrove. In this book, China conquers the world. The protagonist of the book is trying to stop them, at first, then shifts to only trying to survive. At some point he is captured. It looks like all is lost... Except the general who captured him decides not to kill him. It doesn't feel like a Deus ex Machina, because it's clear that the enemy has won at this point and that they no longer need to kill him. And indeed, he never even comes close to thwarting their plans.
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 11:26

4 Answers 4


I think you have to look at DXM this way: the resolution of the hero's arc has to be merited. The hero can merit their solution by achieving it by their own actions. But they can also merit it by deserving the help that has been provided to them.

A classic case is Androcles and the Lion. Androcles is an escaped slave who is captured and thrown to a lion. But lo! the lion does not eat Androcles! Why not, because earlier in the story Androcles had removed a thorn from the lion's paw (as considerable risk to himself). Androcles does not survive being thrown to the lion by his might or guile. But the ending is merited because of his previously demonstrated virtue.

If a character is to be saved by the intervention of a god, literally or figuratively, then they must previously have done something (selflessly) which merits their being saved. The virtue displayed must be commensurate with the intervention provided.

In how many cop shows does our hero cop, with the bad guy's boot on his throat, get saved by the intervention of his partner or some bystander whose help he has merited by his earlier actions in the show?

So the question you should be asking is, will the reader feel that this unexpected and unlikely ending is merited. If it is merited, it can be as unexpected and unlikely as you please. If it is unmerited it can be a ordinary and commonplace as you like and it still will not feel right.

Stories are moral. Endings do not have to be logical or probable, but they do have to be merited.

  • 3
    A rather famous example would be Luke saved by Vader in Return of the Jedi. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 20:48
  • 2
    Another famous example is Gollum taking the Ring with him into the Cracks of Doom. That one was constructed so that Frodo merited Eru's intervention, and "of course" Eru helped things. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:03
  • 3
    @Galastel That is a particularly good example, since Frodo merits this precisely for his sparing Gollum. And it is absolutely necessary that Frodo should require this assistance, since for him to be able to part with the ring voluntarily would have diminished the power of the ring. (The whole Christian theology of merit is implicit in this scene.)
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:34
  • 1
    @ThomasMyron There is certainly a tradition of the hero trusting in the underlying goodness of the antagonist when all others believe they are irredeemable. In this case, the hero's trust would constitute merit. But note that this means that their struggle is really against their own followers and advisers. In other words, the resolution has to fit with the overall shape of the story. Just because it works one place does not mean it can work everywhere.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 17:08
  • 2
    @ThomasMyron In that case you might want to consider having the protag be the one that convinces (or at least pushes) the antag that there is an easier route than killing them.
    – Onyz
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 17:53

I'd say for this to work, there should be sufficient information before this point for the readers not to see the antagonist as a bad guy. Machiavellian perhaps, but not evil.

Then, for the antagonist, it should indeed be the logical solution to let your protagonists go. I mean, they fought against him. It isn't logical to send a message that "fight me, and you will be generously rewarded". It also makes sense that if the antagonist chooses to let them go, he would make sure to render them powerless to ever oppose him again.

And finally, you would need to address how your protagonists feel about getting what they wanted handed to them on a silver platter by the antagonist. Are they suspicious, expecting some treachery? Remorseful for having fought a guy who turned out not to be so bad after all? Angry at getting "pity", rather than having won their rewards?

It wouldn't feel so much as an ugly Deus Ex Machina if all the implications are addressed, I think.

  • 1
    Agreed, and some foreshadowing on the part of the villain, preferably in a manner that makes them sympathetic, might be in order.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 23:21
  • 1
    This works, because you'll have established that the villain is acting in character. It won't actually be a DXM. Also, consider having the heroes be the agents of change: while the villain gloats, they tell him "You've won, you say you want to be a benevolent ruler -- why kill us?" And since you've established that he's not utterly evil, he agrees they should be spared. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 22:34

Complete resolution of a crisis would be a DXM. Pushing the story in a new direction (by creating another crisis that would need to be resolved) is all right.

As far as I can see, your twist can mean two things - either the villain is not that bad, or he's actually worse - and freed protagonists are farther away from reaching their goal. If it is the former, you'll need to show motivation for the protagonists to continue their fight, and for readers to keep rooting for them. If it is the latter, you need to be careful to show the end of Act II as an actual loss for protagonists, and why would the villain be so convinced of his victory.


Yes, I would consider this a DxM.

To me, a DxM is any logically unjustified outcome, and this twist is not logical. I won't talk about how to fix it or how to write, just what makes me think so:

...(what's left of them)...

So I presume the heroes are dying in their quest already...

The villain has recently conquered all of the land, and executing his enemies would only inspire fear in his new subjects. He wishes to rule through peace, not fear.

I presume in the story that not just members of the heroic band but many others are dying in an attempt to prevent this "conquering of all the land", because it makes little sense to me such an enterprise is not met by massive resistance, and is not lethal on both sides.

Since this happened "recently", all the land is probably uncertain if the conquering is completed. Thus the villain's motivation for NOT killing the heroes makes no sense, the people of the world are already frightened by the war, and they know people are dying trying to stop the villain. From their POV the villain is already a wanton killer bent on dominance and rule at any cost, so what's a few more dead? It won't inspire any more fear than the hundreds or thousands killed before them.

Especially since the heroes intend to leave this world as soon as they get their magic device. So to the outside world, their disappearance looks no different than if they were killed and their bodies disappeared, cremated.

And especially since the villain WAS willing to kill them before this moment in order to rule.

As promised I won't talk about how to fix it, I just think this change of heart would not make sense to me as a reader, and would not be satisfying. The villain's sudden conversion to pacifism and magnanimity does not sound in character, his motivation (not inspiring fear) does not make sense, and it definitely does not sound like the heroes earned their reward at the end, it feels like a "participation" ribbon for the losing team.

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