Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.
-with sincere apologies to Chuck Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll)
You know, even the ancient Greeks knew about it, to the point where it received a Latin name --- they didn’t use the Latin, of course; theirs was, unsurprisingly, in Greek, which is, frankly, a lot less pronounceable than Latin --- which is to say none of this is meant to be a disparagement of Greek intelligence, I hasten to add, merely an observation that it’s been around a very long time.
What is IT, you ask? Why, the dreaded Deus ex Machina (DEM), of course, more fearsome than a bad tempered, three-headed dog guarding the underworld… or, as writers say: faster than a speeding gerund… more powerful than a split infinitive… able to leap Oxford commas at a single bound!
In my last post, I discussed the problem --- or non-problem --- of cliché in writing. (I’d include a link to it, but seeing as how it’s right above this one… just scroll to it, fer cryin’ out loud.) I came to the conclusion that, while we might roll our eyes at cliché, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it in writing --- as long as we don’t use it like a 2x4 cudgel to hit the reader over the head. (Maybe a toothpick, instead. A blunt one.) Because, as I pointed out, for most of us pathetic mortals, life is just one long string of clichés i.e. the reason why clichés become clichés is because they happen so damned often to so damned many of us. People are not nearly as clever, creative, original, or funny as they think. (Trust me, I know --- boy, do I know: several eons ago, as a fresh-faced university student, I spent several summers working as a teenage Mountie in a historical park, and people’s comments as they came through the exhibit… not clever. Nope. Not creative. Definitely not creative. And after about the thousandth time hearing the same damned witticisms… not funny. I’m still scarred by the experience, lo, many decades later. Set me on the long road of disillusionment about the Common Man or Woman, it did. Oh, the humanity.)
However… cliché is not the same as DEM, not at all, at all. For the handful of you who’ve never heard of DEM --- the Latin phrase translates out as ‘machine of the gods,’ by the way --- it refers, at least as far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, to the plot device of resolving a play’s conflict by lowering an actor playing one of the gods from a machine suspended above the stage so he/she could dispense immediate judgement and quickly bring the play to a resolution --- in a highly artificial manner that left the audience muttering in their beards (and beer) about how damned unrealistic that would be in real life. It’s since become a phrase signifying creative bankruptcy on the part of a writer: What’s that? Painted your protagonist into a corner and now your significant other is calling you for dinner, and you can’t figure out a logical way to rescue the protagonist from the sticky situation you wrote? No problem! Throw some totally arbitrary, unrealistic person or circumstance into the mix and get ‘em out! Piece of cake!
Folks, when someone in your audience stands up and points the stern, Fickle Finger of Condemnation at your work, shouting out, “J’accuse! J’accuse you of DEM, you silly pig-dog! Merde!” (or words/thoughts to that effect), you’re in big trouble --- and it’s probably time to look discretely for a side exit, so as to make your getaway ahead of the outraged mob howling for blood. Why?
Well, look: as storytellers, we rely on a lovely little phrase I learned back in the Dawn Times, when I was just a wee young writer wannabe: the willing suspension of disbelief. (Ain’t that beautiful? Wish I could claim it as my own, but alas, I can’t. Its origin is lost in the mists of prehistory. Well, my prehistory, anyway.) Now, you can write all sorts of outlandish situations, settings, and characters… as long as you make them, and their actions, believable. You can write about mythical creatures, like dragons (or gryphons, in my case, he said disingenuously/shamelessly), unicorns and honest politicians ---- well, maybe not that last, let’s not get too carried away --- and, as long as you make the context you place them in logical and believable, your audience will accept them. SF writer Harlan Ellison coined the phrase for this whole concept interior logic, and that’s pretty bang-on the money.
When you engage in DEM, you violate the concept of interior logic. For example, when I was a kid, I watched this happen Every Single Week on the Batman TV series of the Dark Ages i.e. the 1960s. (And I’m still scarred from that, too. Fair riddled with neuroses, I am.) Every week, the writers set up some kind of mammoth cliff-hanger… you know, grisly, unavoidable death… no way out… curtains and all that. And then, the following week, when I breathlessly tuned in again (same Bat-time, same Bat-channel), those same writers found all kinds of ridiculous DEM to blithely whisk Batman and Robin out of their lethal predicament faster than a speeding… oops, wrong superhero mantra. Well, pretty damn fast, anyway. Never took longer than the teaser, so we could spend the entire episode building up to the next cliff-hanger, and so on. Even as an (admittedly precocious) child yet to reach my tenth birthday, it didn’t take me long to see the awful cheat in this.
Now, I know we’re not talking Tolstoy here, but… come on, guys. You can’t do this to your audience. I hereby designate DEM a Crime Against Literature.
If you get your protagonist into a spectacular crisis with no apparent way out… if you don’t want to just kill them off in the manner of George R.R. Martin… then you’ve got to construct reasonable, rational ways of extricating them from said crisis.
To do otherwise is… well, ‘tis a crime not to be borne.