Deus Ex Machina: Definition, Examples, and Writing Insights

what is deus ex machina

Storytelling is an art that captivates audiences, drawing them into worlds of imagination and emotion. One term that often stirs both curiosity and debate among writers and readers alike is “Deus Ex Machina.” Today, we’ll explore the heart of this narrative device, exploring its definition, examining examples from various mediums, and providing valuable insights on how to use Deus Ex Machina effectively in your writing.

Deus Ex Machina Meaning

In storytelling, Deus Ex Machina refers to an abrupt and often contrived solution that appears out of nowhere, resolving a complex plot point.

Deus Ex Machina originates from Greek drama, where a god would descend onto the stage using a mechanical device to resolve a seemingly unsolvable conflict, the term has evolved to represent any sudden, unexpected resolution to a story’s problem.

This literary device is not inherently harmful; instead, its impact depends on how skillfully it’s used within the narrative. In essence, Deus Ex Machina is a tool writers can use to inject surprise and resolution into their stories, but like any tool, it requires finesse.

Related: Learn more about Narrative Elements

5 Deus Ex Machina Examples

To better grasp the concept of Deus Ex Machina, let’s explore five notable examples of Deus Ex Machina across different mediums.

Classic Literature: “The Lord of the Rings”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” the eagles’ sudden appearance to rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom is often cited as a Deus Ex Machina moment. While some argue that the eagles’ intervention feels too convenient, others appreciate it as a nod to the deep lore and mythology within Tolkien’s world.

Modern Film: “War of the Worlds” (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” introduces a Deus Ex Machina in the form of bacteria. The aliens, seemingly invincible, are ultimately defeated by Earth’s microorganisms. Critics argue that this resolution is too convenient, as it relies on an external factor unrelated to the characters’ actions.

Contemporary Literature: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

The third installment in the “Harry Potter” series sees the timely arrival of the magical creatures called Hippogriffs. As they rescue Harry and Sirius Black from peril, some readers view this as a Deus Ex Machina, while others appreciate it as a clever integration of magical elements within the narrative.

Video Game: “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”

The video game series “Deus Ex” has a thematic connection to the concept itself. In “Human Revolution,” the protagonist, Adam Jensen, undergoes a radical transformation due to Deus Ex Machina technology. While integral to the game’s plot, some players found the twist to be abrupt and unexpected.

Our Editor’s Take

Deus Ex Machina in video games annoys me more than anything. As avid Zelda and Kingdom Hearts fan, nothing is worse than being in a battle and then having an abrupt out-of-the-box interruption. No thank you! – R. R. Noall

Mythology: Greek Myth of Perseus and Medusa

In the myth of Perseus and Medusa, the sudden appearance of Athena providing Perseus with a reflective shield to defeat Medusa can be seen as a classic Deus Ex Machina. The divine intervention serves as a swift resolution to the seemingly insurmountable challenge.

How to Use Deus Ex Machina in Your Writing

Now that we’ve explored examples of Deus Ex Machina, let’s discuss how writers can use Deus Ex Machina purposefully in their narratives.

  1. Understanding the Balance
    Deus Ex Machina should be used sparingly and with careful consideration. Its impact diminishes if it is overused, so reserve it for crucial moments where the narrative tension is at its peak.
  2. Strategic Implementation for Plot Development
    Integrate Deus Ex Machina seamlessly into your plot, ensuring it aligns with the story arc. Consider foreshadowing or subtle hints to make the resolution feel more organic.
  3. Tips for Making Deus Ex Machina Feel Natural
    Develop your characters and world-building in a way that allows for unexpected solutions. When Deus Ex Machina arises, it should be a logical extension of the established rules and dynamics.
  4. Recognizing When It’s Appropriate to Use
    Choose moments where the narrative demands a surprising turn of events. Deus Ex Machina can be a powerful tool when used to subvert expectations, but it must serve the story rather than disrupt it.

Cons of Using Deus Ex Machina

While Deus Ex Machina can infuse a story with unpredictability, it comes with its share of drawbacks.

  • Impact on Narrative Flow: An abrupt resolution may leave readers or viewers feeling unsatisfied, especially if it contradicts the established rules of the story. It can undermine the coherence and integrity of the narrative.
  • Audience Reaction and Criticism: Deus Ex Machina is often met with criticism from discerning audiences who value well-crafted narratives. It may be perceived as a lazy or forced way to tie up loose ends.
  • Alternatives to Deus Ex Machina: Writers should explore alternative resolutions that arise from characters’ choices and actions, reinforcing the importance of cause and effect within the story. We recommend you learn more about character development, which can help you with this component.
  • Ways to Avoid Common Pitfalls: Be conscious of the narrative flow, pacing, and character development. Thoughtful storytelling can mitigate the negative impact of Deus Ex Machina by ensuring it feels earned rather than forced.
Our Editor’s Take

Deus Ex Machina is easier to pull off in cinema than in novels or short stories. The key to make Deus Ex Machina believable is to create some lore around the surprising thing (be it a beast, event, or magical item); this foreshadowing will help you avoid the pitfalls of this literary device and keep your readers happy. – R. R. Noall


In the realm of storytelling, Deus Ex Machina is a double-edged sword that can either elevate or hinder a narrative. Understanding its definition, exploring examples, and learning how to wield it effectively can empower writers to use this tool judiciously. Mastering the art of Deus Ex Machina requires a delicate balance between surprise and coherence – are you up for it?

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