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I got a critique today from someone and they told me I was using a "Deus Ex Machina". I did some poking around on here, and I question if it really is one.

I found a link -- and it says within the first 20-25% I can get away with it. But does that mean for 20-22% of the chapter or the novel? Mine happens in the middle of the second chapter.

My Possible Deus Ex Machina:

My character is searching for something. When she finds what she's looking for, it's pretty clear that she's waiting on someone. She finally gets fed-up and carries on without him only to find herself in a spot of trouble. He arrives in the nick of time to help her.

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    Definitely related, possible duplicate: How do you make random chance/happenstance not seem like deus ex machina? – a CVn Oct 5 '18 at 17:08
  • That answer on the other question has an explanation for his estimate of 25%. Re-read WHY is it a problem in the first place (an inciting incident that gets her deeper in trouble verses having a convenient "win" handed to her which she had no agency in herself) – wetcircuit Oct 5 '18 at 17:13
  • But is it still happenstance if we know she's waiting on the person who does help her? – Sierra Oct 5 '18 at 17:17
  • @wetcircuit I get it, but the critique seemed so certain it was a Deus Ex Machina. I don't see it being that way (maybe I just don't want to). The scene was written to show her partner was supposed to be there, but her impatience compelled her to start without him. Her impatience lands her in trouble. He finally arrives when she's about to resort to desperate tactics. It is in the start of her first chapter. I don't know. D: – Sierra Oct 5 '18 at 17:22
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    Is this our first introduction to the guy this person is meeting? – hszmv Oct 5 '18 at 19:36
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There is a difference between plot building and plot resolution.

First 20-25% of the book is almost always the part where plot is still under construction. In there, unusual happenstances can be explained by showing that this is why we have this plot in the fist place (ex. someone wins the lottery, and then we see what comes afterward).

On the other hand, towards the end of the book we have most of the conflicts well underway, and unusual happenstances will be serving to solve those conflicts (ex. someone's got into a lot of financial trouble, and then wins the lottery). That what is called "Deus Ex Machina".

In your case it indeed may look like "Deus Ex Machina" - but you need to see if you use this event to resolve the conflicts, or to exacerbate the plot.

One example of "unusual happenstance" serving both to solve conflicts and to advance the plot is "One Ring" in "Hobbit". When Bilbo finds it, the ring appears like a DEM which allows him to escape from a sticky situation. But later, the ring proves to be the source of a much bigger plot.

  • Okey dokey. Thank you for the response. I'll do some thinking. :) – Sierra Oct 5 '18 at 17:24
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    This answer has some remarkable parallels to Sanderson's First Rule of Magic: "The ability for an author to resolve conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader's understanding of said magic." If the reader doesn't have much understanding of why the event happened (happenstance), then its dangerous to resolve conflict. – Cort Ammon Oct 5 '18 at 19:19
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    @Cort Ammon "Unless it’s there to screw up things for the characters. That’s always okay." :) – Alexander Oct 5 '18 at 19:50
  • @CortAmmon "The ability for an author to resolve conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader's understanding of said magic." So THAT is why I find most magic systems contrived and irritating when I read fantasy! I never could put a finger onto that. Thanks, that explains so much! – Bumble Bee Oct 7 '18 at 15:03
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The issue with Deus Ex Machina (DEM), regardless of when it occurs, is when you have led the reader (by whatever means) to expect your character to solve her own problem, and she gets a win by the gods doing her a favor out of nowhere.

Readers will accept undeserved bad luck, but they expect the hero to be an agent of good luck, not the recipient of it, or at least overcoming bad luck.

If she gets herself in trouble through recklessness or stupidity, we don't expect her to be saved by a stranger. Your story would be better if she struggled out of her trouble on her own, taking risks that paid off, and frees herself from danger but ends up muddied, in torn clothing -- THEN the guy she's looking for shows up, just MISSING the nick of time. Now she has another obstacle to overcome, meeting the one she needs looking like a filthy stinking vagabond.

Your hero can BE the DEM showing up just in the nick of time to save somebody in distress, or can BE the DEM as the "chosen one". But your hero should always be an active agent (and proactive agent) in their OWN fate, don't ever give them an obvious break (I mean a break the reader will know is a break).

Stories are very much about heroes overcoming obstacles by dint of their own will, skill, determination, action and risk taking. That is why they are inspiring or entertaining. We like to see people win when they aren't lucky and have to struggle every step up the mountain. So no free rides for the heroes, not directly or indirectly. That's what the modern meaning of DEM is; a gimme or free ride or lucky break the hero did not earn.

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    Though sometimes it works in an ironic fashion if the hero didn't want the lucky break, like someone trying to get revenge personally, wanting to kill their enemy slowly, etc., only for the enemy to die of a heart attack right before or something. – JAB Oct 5 '18 at 22:46
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    @JAB I don't know, if that is how the story ends, I am not satisfied. I'd consider that a poor ending. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 5 '18 at 23:34
  • Disagree that heroes can't ever have a lucky break. Obi-wan saving Luke from the Tusken raiders or Glorfindel helping to drive away the Nazgul can advance the plot by memorably introducing supporting characters and building the emotion for the final conflict--more powerful characters couldn't succeed and are definitively no longer able to aid the hero in the eventual much more difficult task. Taking away help the hero never had/needed to begin with doesn't hurt. – mkbk Oct 6 '18 at 21:08
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    @Amadeus Depends on the tone you want to set. It could be very effective if you're working the "vengeance is empty" angle. Ahab doesn't have to succeed in getting his whale. – R.M. Oct 6 '18 at 23:05
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    Coming of age stories frequently introduce the mentor figure by having them rescue the hero. Coming of age stories are about the hero developing the ability to overcome obstacles, so an early rescue is a good way to demonstrate that the mentor has skills that the hero needs to learn. Obi-wan rescues Luke, Strider rescues the hobbits, Mr. Miyagi rescues Daniel, the list goes on and on. – Arcanist Lupus Oct 6 '18 at 23:35
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It's not really a DEM in my opinion. At least, not in the strictest sense.

You need to make sure though that the audience knows she is supposed to wait for him (maybe even ordered to do so).
Her decision to go ahead without that support(or guidance) and the subsequent trouble she then needs "rescuing" from, will considerably lay out her personality, potentially also her abilities and standing in the relationship with the person she waited for.

If you want to reveal that kind of information go ahead.
It can drive further conflict or bonding between the characters.
It is a quite common plot device often displayed by rookies, the impatient youth, dare devils or hot heads.

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In setting up a problem or conflict, in a story, the reader will accept "it just happened that way", which means you can handwave away much of the usual "how likely is it?" of the premise. There are magical rings, and hobbits, and that's how it is.

But the main point of a work of fiction is to satisfy the reader, by showing the story coming to an emotionally/intellectually satisfactory ending. Frodo must work and suffer, to finally dump the ring in Mount Doom, god doesn't come down on the penultimate page and helpfully zap it for him.

The term Deus ex machina comes from Ancient Greek tragedies, where, the hero having got into a situation so screwed up he/she can't resolve it, the gods conveniently come down from the sky (in a 'machine'), handwave all the injustices and issues away, solve everything, and hey presto, all nice neat and fairly done.

In modern fiction, that's not seen as a good way to do it. To a reader, it's akin to having read the book, and the last part summarising as "Then the gods came down and solved everything. The end."

('Gods' in a modern context could be any 'plot device', or 'magical' answer that feels like a 'cheat' to the reader, not just a literal god.)

So the comment means that the answer in the story is likely to feel like a "cheat", to someone keenly looking forward to "how will this work out? What will the protagonists do?" And that's why is is being discouraged in your writing.

The thing is, that this often happens at the end, but it doesn't need to. A story sets up its own internal logic, and there is a subtle sense when a new feature or revelation is exposing new internal logic or "reasonable" handwaving, and when it's doing "unreasonable" or cheating handwaving. The latter feels like an author is being lazy and cheating, and can happen anywhere - not just at the end. The more established the plot lines and the more a point sticks out like a sore thumb from its context, the more likely it is to feel that way. Generally after the first 1/4 of a story those have been set up and we are reading about the developing tensions within the universe of the story, so by that point, cheaty solutions and new features have the scope to feel 'cheaty' whereas earlier they may be accepted as part of the setup. That's probably why the first 25% and "next part" have the rules of thumb that are given in the OP.

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    "Frodo must work and suffer, to finally dump the ring in Mount Doom, God doesn't come down on the penultimate page and helpfully zap it for him" -- actually... scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/67834/… – Brian McCutchon Oct 6 '18 at 19:19
  • I only read LOTR so I didn't get that bit, which is in another Tolkein book I guess. Within that story, no such luck :) but even so, luck isn't the same as Deus Ex Machina. Frodo did the work, and the reader feels that Gollum's downfall was reasonable literary creation, not a "cheat". Similar happens in numerous other fictions - a final fight of some kind, where the villain/antagonist is portrayed as falling through his own action, or by bad luck - but only after the protagonist has done all he can, and within "reasonable human hapstance". – Stilez Oct 6 '18 at 20:43
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Deus Ex Machina is a complicated experience and tends to be both personal to the reader and also particular to a reading of the piece in question. A hopefully demonstrative example; I've read A Meeting at Corvallis at least a dozen times and never has the arrival of the Corvallian reinforcements in chapter sixteen has never felt like Deaus Ex moment before but rather the almost inevitable culmination of many events in both that and previous novels, until today. Why was reading it today different? I lay it at the feet of some relatively poorly written material I've been reading lately, which shall remain nameless, which failed to set up its last minute interventions with the same degree of skill, it seems to have tainted my perception of all interventions.

Deus Ex Machina isn't really about coincidence, odd coincidences happen every day, and it's not about "unrealistic" situations life is usually stranger than fiction at the end of the day. What you have to avoid is making your reader go either "that was too convenient" or "where did that come from?". To that end:

  • the timing should never be perfect, whatever happens should happen earlier than it needs to or possibly too late to actually save the day depending what you're going for.

  • the scale should never be perfect either, whatever happens should make an overwhelming difference to the situation.

  • who-, or what, ever makes the last minute save needs to be a known and somewhat expected element.

In the example I've given the reinforcements show up before the Bearkiller army actually starts to move into it's final defensive position; a good hour or so before the really telling phase of the battle would have started. There only need to be a few hundred of them to change the situation, thousands show up. Earlier in the piece two Corvallians leave to get their forces together, it's not sure that they can until they turn up but it is an established possibility.

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