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The term "deus ex machina" comes from ancient Greek theatre. It was a common occurrence for plays of the time to feature a character - often a God or Goddess - turn up out of nowhere at the end to save all of the characters and resolve all of the plot points. The "Gods" were usually lifted onto the stage by a crane, or machine, giving rise to the name "deus ex machina" or "God from a machine".
The deus ex machina would conveniently solve all the problems and complications that had occurred in the play up to that point. Despite the deus ex machina often making little sense, it was used to provide an easy ending to a play.
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It was easy to spot a deus ex machina in ancient Greek tragedies, when a literal God in a machine would swoop in and solve all of the characters problems. In modern times, however, an example of deus ex machina may be more subtle.
Examples of deus ex machina in fiction may include:
- A character waking up and realising it was "all a dream"
- A hero turning up right just in time to save everyone
- A sudden discovery of a super power or magical ability that solves all the plot problems
- A sudden dramatic natural event, such as an earthquake or fire
- A character who magically returns from the dead
The deus ex machina plot device usually involves a last minute appearance by a character who saves the day, or a sudden event that conveniently resolves the plot.
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The deus ex machina is often criticised for providing a lazy ending to a story. Audiences of Greek theatre were more forgiving of the device, but in modern times it is considered an example of bad writing. It is criticised for providing implausable and unsatisfying endings to stories, and audiences may feel they have been "cheated" when a deus ex machina is introduced at the last minute.
Deus ex machina is considered an easy way out - a way to resolve the story nicely, without putting any effort into writing a plausible and satisfactory ending.
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How to Spot a Deus Ex Machina in Fiction
When studying a text, here are some clues that you may be dealing with a deus ex machina:
- A sudden plot turn has been introduced with no logical explanation behind it.
- A "magical" solution is provided to solve all of the characters problems. (It could be literal magic or it could simply be a very implausible solution)
- A hero turn has turned up out of nowhere and rescued all the characters.
The main thing to be on the look out when searching for an example of deus ex machina is a miraculous solution at the end of a story which implausibly resolves the plot.