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There will always be some amount of luck, some amount of chance and randomness in any story. This is how it is in real life as well, and although stories are not a representation of reality, they do build on it.

So, there's this part in my book that I fear might be a deus ex machina, because it is very significant and provides a solution to a conflict, yet has a great element of luck involved. Here it goes:

The MC is badly wounded by a gang of violent gold miners. It is established beforehand that these gold miners acquired their land through a massacre of Native Americans camping there. These native Americans are nomadic, yet they happened to be camping at that spot for a little while and didn't really like the fact that these savage men came into their lands and started digging for gold. These men didn't quite enjoy the natives camping out there either, and so a conflict ensued, where most of the native Americans were killed. This is all established in one or two lines of dialogue concerning the boss of that gang, masquerading as primarily being character establishment for the boss, when in reality, its main purpose is to inform the reader about natives. Their nomadic nature (which is kind of important) is not mentioned, though, but that is implicit in the fact that they are Comanche.

So, the MC survives this beat down, and recovers, only to wander the wilderness completely lost. This is around the Texas-Colorado border, so the wilderness he is lost in is mountainous forest area. Eventually, he makes it out of the forest and nears Texas again, returning to the Great Plains. He does this because he figures it will be easier to spot people on the Plains than in the desolate woods. And spot people he does. He is attacked by a rather hostile native. When the native approaches him to finish the job, they see the MC's dire state and how, clearly, the MC is not a threat, despite their white skin and white clothes. The native's hostility is based on the MC's skin is a clue, although being a bit common considering that many other natives were also mistreated by white settlers.

The native treats the MC's wounds and helps them back on their feet. They do this not only to right the wrong they did but also because the native senses a connection between them and the MC. This is the second clue. The native seems quite depressed and gloomy, which is the third clue. Eventually, through conversation, they find out they have been wronged by the same man and gang, the native being the only one alive from his tribe. The native also finds out their daughter is a captive in the gold miner's camp, instead of being dead, like he thought. That is when they set out to take him out and rescue the daughter, which they succeed in. Now, you might think, the MC gaining one friend to help him out on this endeavor isn't that significant. Though, I am not sure if I'll go with exactly this narrative. I might go with a narrative where there are multiple natives left, who take the MC in. When the MC then reveals he was wronged by the same man as they were, and that the chieftain's daughter is living as a captive in their camp, then they all set out to take the camp out. In this alternative, the MC is even luckier.

Yet, could one say he is even that lucky? I mean, this is all happening in the same general location. The tribe in question is a nomadic one, meaning they move around in the location, which increases the likelihood the MC would eventually stumble over them. So, does this seem like a "deus ex machina" to you guys? How can one distinguish from a reasonable amount of luck, and a "deus ex machina" amount of luck? Does one simply have to experience the narrative objectively, to feel whether it feels contrived or not?

  • I would say it's less of a "deus ex machina" then, for example, "The Revenant" – Alexander Jul 15 at 18:03
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I'd say this isn't a deus ex machina - those usually occur suddenly, resolve the story's conflict/dramatic tension, and in many cases occur from outside the narrative context.

Here you've essentially got a co-incidence (which aren't actually as unlikely as you'd might think) - two aggrieved parties with a common foe encounter each other and team up. This is then driving the plot forward, setting up the conflict (both literal and figurative) in the next act.

Yes it's fortunate for the MC that he encountered someone inclined to help him and it's fortunate for the native(s) that they encountered someone with information valuable to them (the knowledge of the daughter) and yes it's probably more likely in the real world for them not to have run into each other but this isn't the real world, it's fiction and suspension of disbelief will get you along just fine.

This doesn't resolve all the MC's and the Native's problems - they still have a gang of evil gold miners to face off and a damsel to rescue. Adventure, peril and general hi-jinks ensue.

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  • Thanks for the advice! I have thought of an alternative narrative, and I have written it in a comment below user Duncan Drake's answer. What do you think about it? Is it better from a narrative perspective? – A. Kvåle Jul 15 at 21:51
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    @A.Kvåle Personally I have to agree that the original narrative is preferable - it's tighter and you don't have to spend time going through intermediaries (the guy-who-knows-a-guy-who-was-wronged) in order to move the plot forward. Since you're coming off a period of relatively slow pacing in the plot (i.e. the wandering in the wilderness) having the meet up bring a relatively rapid and immediate effect is likely to be advantageous. – motosubatsu Jul 16 at 8:37
  • Thank you! The pacing did definitely get a little slow in the forest. – A. Kvåle Jul 16 at 8:51
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    @A.Kvåle And I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, if anything it's completely appropriate - it's about knowing when you need to pick the pace back up. If the meeting between the MC and Commanche is essentially the inciting incident for the next act of the story then it should pick up the plot pace appropriately. – motosubatsu Jul 16 at 8:55
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    @A.Kvåle Two things to keep track of here, though, are how many coïncidences you have (or how frequently they occur), and how many of them are positive for the Protagonist. Sometimes you can break things up with a "false-start" (e.g. perhaps this is the second native the Protagonist has encountered, and the bad outcome last time leads to them being more wary) to add a sense that they were lucky this time, rather than every time – Chronocidal Jul 16 at 16:19
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Does not look extremely unlikely. Of course it would depend on how large the area the tribe uses to move in is. They were nomadic but inside well defined and known areas.

Eventually he makes it out of the forest and nears Texas again, returning to the Great Plains. He does this because he figures it will be easier to spot people on the Plains than in the desolate woods. And spot people he does.

You could make the encounter even more likely if the MC were to follow a likely path, like a water way. Would be most common for people of the age to move and camp along rivers. So meeting is almost inevitable if the two different parties are moving in opposite directions.

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  • Great advice, I will definitely have him follow a water way. I have thought of an alternative narrative, where he meets a lone Comanche. Through conversation, the Comanche finds out about the MC having been wronged by this particular gang of gold miners. That's when the Comanche tells of a fellow band he knows that suffered a tragedy at the hands of the same gang. And then this Comanche leads the MC to them. This alternative seems to contain pretty much no luck. It's not unlikely at all, but is this level likelihood necessary? I feel like the original version is more emotionally compelling. – A. Kvåle Jul 15 at 21:49
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When we talk about what is plausible or implausible in a story, we tend to approach causality front-to-back:

What are the chances you'd survive falling out of an airplane in flight?

Obviously, they are not good at all. If you're faced with the choice to jump from an airplane in flight, you expect it to be suicide - because the chances of survival are that low. On the other hand...

What are the chances that someone telling you about the time he jumped from an airplane survived?

Setting aside cases where he is still falling while talking to you, or stories about an afterlife (or dishonesty about having jumped on the part of the teller), the chances of surviving the fall go from effectively nil to 100%.

What does this have to do with the implausibility of events in a story? Simple; if interesting and unusual things didn't happen in your story, you wouldn't be telling it. That is, looking at probability from back-to-front, you're not (closely) telling the story of the Native Americans who had trouble with the gold miners and DIDN'T meet someone else who was having problems with them. You're not telling the story of white frontiersmen who were killed by Native Americans, and never inspired mercy or realized they had a common cause.

As long as your story takes place in a universe where not every convenient coincidence that could happen does happen, most readers will have some patience that a few coincidences come up in your story. Something interesting must have happened - because you're telling it.

Obviously you're making it all up, but "These are unusual things that don't happen all the time, but are worth telling about," is a principle on which most stories are modeled.

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  • Agree, but what you're describing is stuff that usually sits in the beginning of a story, because that unusual event is what the story is built upon. If it weren't for the extraordinary event, then there wouldn't be story at all. But what follows should be more plausible, perhaps not as plausible as every-day life, but still not as plausible as perhaps the initial premise. This coincidence is happening 10 chapters in (it's a novel), though it's still in the first act. What do you think about this? – A. Kvåle Jul 16 at 17:37
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    @A.Kvåle The same principle applies for the whole story, really. Right up to the final confrontation. "It's one in a million that they would have lived through that last scene to tell the tale." Sure, we expect stories to make more sense and give more catharsis than we expect from real life (or at least, than we tend to get from real life). The only thing I might do to cover up a sense of implausibility is to make sure I gave signs that Native Americans had been driven off by the miners well before introducing one as a character. – Jedediah Jul 16 at 19:19
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    Yeah, the signs are definitely given. – A. Kvåle Jul 16 at 23:48
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All literature relies on coincidence. That's because a narrative isn't a duplicate of life, it's a condensation of it, where things are brought into close proximity for maximum effect. So the audience is prepared to accept a certain amount of coincidence.

The general rule of thumb is this. Coincidence feels like a cheat when it makes things easier for the characters, illegitimately, which is to say, without them putting the work in. The detective happens to find the stolen jewel in the first pawn shop he finds. Everyone groans. But when it makes things harder for the characters, it's much more palatable. Why, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, does Ilsa walk into Rick's? Who cares, it's the challenging event that sets the story in motion. The underlying reason is that we read to learn. We can learn a lot from seeing a character deal with an unlucky break. But we can't learn anything from watching someone who's undeservedly lucky all the time.

If coincidence is doing too much water-carrying for the writer, that can get annoying as well. If the writer consistently relies on improbable coincidences to put the characters in interesting situations, that begins to feel real fake, real fast. In the last Harry Potter, is it a string of coincidences that the villain is reliably able to find the hero? No, it turns out there's a hidden mechanism at work. Again, it comes down to being able to relate it to our own lives and challenges. A long string of meaningless unlucky breaks doesn't feel any more real than a long string of lucky ones.

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Author Shirley Hazzard:

I've thought that there may be more collisions ... in life than in books. Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can't be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn't have to be fair, or convincing.

From The Transit of Venus, Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 62.

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Several answers have the same message: its the resolution of conflict that makes deus ex machina a problem. I would recommend using a phrasing from Brandon Sanderson: his First Law of Magic

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

The message is the same, but I find that, as a writing tool, calling it "magic" is a really effective way to get a feeling for how bad it is. Magic admits these coincidences for what they really are, no punches pulled. Throw that word around with regard to your own work, and you quickly find out what you are comfortable with.

If you aren't comfortable arguing why your particular plot device should not be treated as if it were magic, then you should apply Sanderson's Law. Look at how much conflict you resolved, and how well the reader understands the nature of the device.

What if the MC had used divination to put himself on the path of this native? Would it feel contrived? This might depend on a host of show-don't-tell sort of things. If you show that he's actively trying to capitalize on small things, no matter how small, getting lucky may be less luck and more a subtle skill. On the other hand, how much conflict is actually being resolved? If you're actually creating conflict in the process, you can get away with a whole lot of this kind of magic! Maybe going after that one particular camp to reclaim two people is a bit of a doozie!

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  • Oh it most certainly is a doozie. Thanks for the advice about having an event that resolves conflict to also instill more conflict, as a countermeasure. I have never thought of this but it makes a lot of sense. And when thinking about that specific principle, I see that my specific case does deliver in that regard. – A. Kvåle Aug 1 at 14:28
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The infamous "with one bound, our hero was free" is deus ex machina; "our hero turned the corner and smashed into (anything)" might be random but it's also reasonable.

Can you show how it could matter that the event was "random" - wholly or partially?

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  • ...or incompetent enemy tying down the flying brick with wet noodles. – Trish Jul 27 at 13:09

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