By Bruce Hennigan
I am finishing up the final galley proof corrections for my upcoming book, “The 11th Demon: The Ark of Chaos” and I am anxious to make sure I haven’t used “deus ex machina” to save the day. While watching reruns of the newer versions of Doctor Who in preparation for the upcoming 50th anniversary broadcast of “The Day of the Doctor” and I was amazed at how often this device was used to finish the story.
The phrase comes from the Latin for “god from the machine”. It is a plot device in which an unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. It is intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out. For instance, in recent movies and television shows, how many times have we seen the villain run out into the street and get hit by a car or bus?
This practice dates back to Greek theater where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane used to lower actors from above, or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.
The problem for Christian authors is that we really do have a God who can swoop in and miraculously save the day. But, how do we write about our God in our stories without coming across as contrived? Here are some suggestions:
1 – God often uses people to accomplish His purpose. Think of Joseph and Moses. God could have picked any random person out of the desert to save the day. Instead, he prepared a person through triumphs, failures, crises, and hard times to be in just the right place at the just the right time to “save the day”. Use characters whose life circumstances take them in the right direction and the right type of spiritual growth to put them in the right place at the right time to do God’s work.
2 – Be careful with God’s agents. Angels are very popular and have cropped up in movies and television shows over the past thirty years. These angels often miraculously save the day. If we use such heavenly hosts in our stories, then we must understand their powers, their limitations, and their mission. Angels are God’s messengers and rarely work miracles. Be careful and wise in how you use angels and always, always foreshadow their presence.
3 – Earn it! Whatever device you ultimately use to deliver the ending to your story, make your characters earn it. Don’t put them in such a hopeless situation that the arrival of salvation is truly miraculous. Set them up to make choices, decisions, changes in their life that would build upon their “salvation” to make this world a better place. Or, if the opposite is true, show their poor decisions resulting in NOT being “saved”.
How do you, as an author, avoid the “deus ex machina”?
Bruce Hennigan is a radiologist, a church dramatist, and a certified apologist. He co-authored “Conquering Depression” with B & H Publishing and an update will release in 2014. He is the author of three novels, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”, “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon” published by Realms Books and the upcoming “The 11th Demon: The Ark of Chaos”.