My characters are in a difficult situation that can be somewhat relieved by a colleague.

MC is wounded, leading secondary protagonist to take a bullet for him. She is gravely injured, MC takes SP towards safety, leaving a good friend and tertiary protagonist to cover their escape.

This escape is revealled by the SP to be little more than playing into the plan B of their opponents, as it has been a reaction rather than a reasoned action. MC and SP are in communication with TP, who, being uninjured and quite fit, could certainly outflank those who have outflanked the MC and SP, evening the odds.

This TP is introduced about a third of the way in and has a clear relationship (good friend) with the MC. I tend to introduce characters in a serial fashion, which suits this as the SP is a new member and meeting many of these people herself.

How best to minimize the Deus Ex Machina flavour that might be present in the TP’s intervention?

I am looking more for a ‘shouldn’t the TP help?’ thought instead of ‘where did that come from’.

3 Answers 3


Basically to prevent a D.E.M. you need to introduce the skill (or person) early, and sustain reference to it (or them) frequently; so they do not fade from the reader's mind as a possibility.

FOR EXAMPLE, If my MC is a 13 yo girl, and needs to knock out an adult male kidnappers at the end of the book, that is so unusual that I need to make her a black belt in self-defense at the beginning of the book, probably in the first 1/8 of the story (when readers are first learning about the characters and world and will accept almost anything; up to and including magic, alternative universes, aliens, etc).

The opposite of the D.E.M. is a joyous rescue, an "Of Course!" moment, or "Finally!" or "Hooray! She made it!".

To have that, you want the reader wondering, not if the TP is capable of saving them, but if the TP is going to get there on time.

I don't know how your story is structured, but one way to do that is to make the TP part of this operation from the start, he was supposed to escape with them but was blocked. He promised to "catch up", but his situation did not seem hopeful. Have the SP and MC wonder where the TP is for the first part of the escape, then later give up hope and assume the TP captured or killed, then later as they are about to join him in that state, HEY, here he comes! Bloody and beaten, but guns blazing! Hooray!

In a sense then I have given the TP his own "hidden" story arc. We only see the beginning (him being captured), our focus characters speculate on the middle (wrongly by thinking him defeated), but then we see the end (his triumphant return) that proves the middle was a harrowing experience for him.

Now you can continue that arc and have the TP leave after saving them, on his own mission separate from them, or you can end the arc and have him join the MC and SP to help them to safety (presuming they are still being chased).

It is not a D.E.M. if the reader has been prepped to believe this is something that can happen. If you don't prep them, then the surprise of the help appearing is what breaks their belief.

Now you DO want there to be an element of surprise or suspense, not that the TP was capable of saving them, you want that to be plausible from the beginning. The surprise should be that the reader is led to believe the TP must be dead or imprisoned, and then somehow survived and managed to escape himself, to get there on time to save them.

  • I do have the TP as covering the initial escape from a catwalk, the aggressors, seeing the MC leave the building, withdraw, regroup and begin the hunt as plan A has become plan B, driving the MC to exhaustion as he essentially stumbles into their trap - welcoming committee. SP is given time to think and broaches her suspicion that they are doing what is wanted of them. They seek intel and communicate with TP, but a delay in his reply could certainly be because he is enacting his plan - mentioned an idea that might help later. Such delay could be misconstrued by MC and SP
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 16:34
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    @Rasdashan Or they try to communicate with the TP, but there is no answer at all. They later find out that, without causing him more than some bloody superficial damage, his communications device took a bullet. Which is also why they can't ever communicate with him afterward; making them think he has been killed. Perhaps the MC's aggressors withdraw, but he sees aggressors on the catwalk and the TP has to run, chased by his own aggressors, disappearing with hot chase on his tail. Make it seem to the MC and SP (and thus the reader) that the incommunicado TP was likely caught or killed.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 21:08
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    (Cont) You don't have to show how the TP escaped that hot pursuit, this is all just told to the MC and SP a chapter later, in dialogue, without much detail. So it can be a bit hand-wavy. "I had to run, I didn't have time to reload. But once I did, it was a cakewalk. A very messy cakewalk. Took this graze on the ribs, here, damn thing keeps splitting open on me."
    – Amadeus
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 21:15
  • I heard this as a corollary to Checkov's gun: If you want a gun to fire on the second act, show it in the first. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 13:35
  • @Mindwin A little backward; Chekhov's gun is that if you DO focus on a gun in the first Act, it must be part of the plot; fired in the 2nd act. Chekhov's gun is saying everything you show in a story should have some function in the story. My advice is different: When we first open a book of fiction, we are prepared to accept just about anything; including that we are following the life of a young, competition winning, 13 yo female martial artist. Such people exist, after all. But also willing to accept supernatural elements, etc. See nownovel.com/blog/use-chekhovs-gun
    – Amadeus
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 14:35

Introduce TP earlier. If you don't want TP introduced by coming "on stage" as it were, you can have characters refer to her/him.

These folks are in a battle. Not only does that tend to bring people closer together so that they'll talk about their lives and the people who aren't there, but it also means they're likely to think about those people with the experience to help.

Maybe MC can tell the others a story about what a bad-*ss TP is. It could even be a funny story. But it would highlight the special skills TP has that will come into play later. Not a duplicate situation, but enough for the reader to know TP is capable of it.

If you also weave in occasional mentions or communications with TP ("s/he's over that hill there!" "TP's last message says s/he's down to 3 boxes of ammo"), you also avoid TP's appearance coming as a shocker to the reader.

  • I have a scene where the TP and MC together rescue another group and it is 80% TP and 20% MC due to the TP being master of a more rapid weapon. TP is acknowledged as being simpy the best with hand guns and so fast that he is sometimes called Sundance.
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 2:10
  • That should work. Does it address your question though? What else needs to happen to make you not worry about DEM?
    – Cyn
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 5:39
  • Perhaps my concern is in part due to the severity of the situation and that the logical thing for the TP to do is retake the ex-fil location, permitting the driver to whom the MC and SP were originally fleeing to take his position and flip the adversaries’ plan B into their plan D.
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 9:54
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    I'm not sure where DEM comes into this. Your plan sounds strong. It may or may not be what I would think is the best option (or one I'd even come up with at all), if I were reading the entire work, but it wouldn't come as a surprise out of nowhere featuring a character's skills I didn't know existed. DEM is more when the calvary rides in and you didn't even know anyone around here had horses.
    – Cyn
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 15:44

It's not enough to establish the existence of a character who can save the day or that they will try, there is a matter of fine timing that separates a helping hand from a DEM. I won't say what I was reading recently that got this very very wrong but the protagonists were saved just in time by people who you thought were supposed to already be there, but weren't, repeatedly. Had the interventions been slightly earlier the stakes would be nearly as high but it would have felt less like Deus Ex Machina and more like the logical outcome of the set up that had been prepared.

Another trick is to use a split perspective, those in need of rescue on the one hand and their rescuer(s) on the other. Then the reader knows that help is on the way but keep the timing uncertain, this lets you have a save that is absolutely last second without it feeling like you're cheating.

  • So either bring rescue in the eleventh hour provided it is 11:05 instead of 11:59 or a minute to midnight providing one sees why, in that from 11:05 to 11:58 TP was preparing rescue? I can hop into the TP’s mind, showing him covering more ground as he moves along the perimeter and does so in a manner that avoids attracting the attention of those pursuing the MC and, to a smaller extent, hiim. Showing the hunters is also possible and could maintain tension.
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 14:22
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    Yeah basically. The rescue can be as late as you like as long as you establish the rescuer(s) are actually there, its the sudden last minute appearance of a rescue that wasn't coming that creates that DEM feeling.
    – Ash
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 14:34

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