Then a Miracle Occurs

I was moaning to my daughter Kat earlier tonight about how I needed to write this post, but I had no idea what to write about. “The 14th Street sinkhole,” she replied.

A little backstory is required here. A couple of weeks ago, a giant sinkhole opened at 14th and F Streets Northwest in Washington, DC. We don’t typically get sinkholes in DC – exploding manholes, yes, but not sinkholes – so this one is quite the novelty. It has even developed its own personality, complete with a Twitter account and Foursquare check-in spot.

But an IU post about it? “My post kind of has to be about writing,” I told Kat. “What relevance does a sinkhole have to writing?”

“Deus ex machina,” she replied.

I had to concede the point. Having a sinkhole open up under a character in your novel is a pretty good example of a deus ex machina. Another, and one of my favorite cartoons ever, is the one where a mathematician has written part of an equation on a chalkboard, drawn an arrow to the phrase “then a miracle occurs,” and drawn another arrow to the rest of the equation. The mathematician’s mentor points to the phrase and says, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

To be more explicit myself, deus ex machina is Latin for “god from the machine.” It’s the plot device you reach for when you’ve written yourself into a corner and can’t think of any other way to get your characters out of it. The phrase supposedly comes from a habit of some ancient Greek playwrights. They would use a crane to lower an actor playing a god onto the stage at a critical moment. Just when all is lost, the god descends from the heavens and poof! Problem solved!

Aristotle and Horace both considered it the lazy way out. (There’s a killjoy in every crowd.) Ever since then, writers have been advised never to rely on this sort of miraculous plot device.

But in certain situations, a deus ex machina can be used to good effect. Let’s say you’re writing a comic scene. Part of what makes something funny is the element of surprise. So when J.K. Rowling has Hermoine Granger pull far more stuff out of her tote bag than could ever possibly fit into it – and when the thing she pulls out is exactly what Harry Potter needs to get out of his current jam – her readers laugh. But on the other hand, Hermione’s bag isn’t exactly a deus ex machina. Rowling has already set us up, as readers, to expect that her characters will use magic. So a tote bag that’s larger on the inside than it appears on the outside becomes an acceptable, and even charming, plot device.

And it’s critical for writers to know that a deus ex machina doesn’t have to stay a deus ex machina past the first draft. If, on the rewrite, you can slip in some foreshadowing, in the form of a couple of lines about sinkholes (or exploding manholes) here and there, you can make your deus ex machina so believable as to be almost inevitable.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Then a Miracle Occurs”

  1. Great way to get out of a jam, but we must take great care in how we use it. As you say, foreshadowing is one way to set it up effectively, but we must not be tempted to use it too often or we’ll have readers shaking their heads.

    And you and your daughter must have ESP. There is no other way you could have made that leap. lol

  2. Well you certainly pulled one out of the bag there, Lynne. And Yvonne is right; one would have to use it sparingly. If I’m ever watching a movie with my wife, Zoë, and it happens she rolls her eyes, if it happens more than once, regardless of how good the movie might be otherwise, she throws up her hands and refuses to watch anymore.

    Excellent post, Lynne.

    1. Thanks, TD. Of course, we here are all careful planners when we write, and so we would never ever EVER have to resort to back-foreshadowing in order to get us out of a plot snafu. 😉

  3. Lovely. 🙂 I really enjoyed this history lesson, and the way you and your daughter mesh. I knew what deus ex machina meant but I had no idea how the old greeks used that plot device. I’ll have that mental image in my head forever more.


    I don’t know if you’re familiar with George R.R.Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice, but when he reanimates a character killed during the Red Wedding, well… I felt a little cheated.


    There have been times when I would have given an arm and a leg for a deus ex but that example always acts as a mental slap on the wrist. If G.R.R.M. can’t get away with it then the rest of us don’t have a prayer.

    1. Thanks, A.C. 🙂 Yes, I’m familiar with ASoIaF. To my sorrow. (I was among those readers who suffered through the long drought between the 4th and 5th books. 😉 )

  4. I think what I was trying to say with this post was that a deus ex machina is *only* that when it comes completely out of the blue. There’s nothing wrong with an inspired solution in the moment — no, really, there’s not — AS LONG AS you go back and lay the groundwork for it.

    If you’re writing gritty noir fiction and your solution to your dilemma is to have a fairy wave her magic wand, then, of course, you’ve got a problem. But hopefully your solution fits your genre, and would make sense in your story *if only* you’d foreshadowed it. So just go back and put in the foreshadowing. Because then it falls under the “if there’s a gun hanging over the mantel in Chapter 1, it needs to be fired by the end of the book” rule. 😉

  5. yes, Lynne, as long as you lay the groundwork for it, as you said. But the deus-ex needs to then drop its magical effect when it happens, and become a rational, logical consequence of the plot.

    BTW, I am convinced you ladies have magic tote bags available. I’ve always seen more things come out of any lady’s bag than ever physically possible.

    1. That’s exactly it, Massimo. The thing that makes a deus ex a deus ex is that it seems to come out of nowhere.

      As for your comment about women’s totes, I am not at liberty to divulge that information. 😉

  6. This: “If, on the rewrite, you can slip in some foreshadowing, in the form of a couple of lines about sinkholes (or exploding manholes) here and there, you can make your deus ex machina so believable as to be almost inevitable.”

    is excellent advice, Lynne, and cuts to what many may regard as the “hard work” of fiction writing. It’s very important that such plot device feels inevitable. Personally, I love writing a set-up on page 73 which doesn’t pay off till page 231 – that’s where a large part of the joy of storytelling is to be had 🙂

  7. Terrific post! I can go along with the author if the setup is there. But if I can tell the author is taking the easy way out (ahem, The Horse Whisperer), forget it.

    1. Exactly. There’s the charming surprise, and then there’s the eye-rolling “oh, come ON!” And of course, we always strive for the former. 🙂

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