Deus Ex Machina

This is something that all writers will encounter during their career. There is no escaping it; writers will run into this problem. As they continue to flush out their story, a writer will inevitably write themselves into a corner (whether in the planning/outline stage, or during the writing itself). Their story will inevitably get to the point where it needs help! The question is: Does the author force a rewrite? Or do they use a deus ex machina to save the day?

Excerpt from Wikipedia: The Latin phrase deus ex machina, from deus (“a god”) + ex (“from”) + machina (“a device, a scaffolding, an artifice”), is a calque from the Greek “god from the machine“.

It is a mechanism employed by writers to solve a problem in the story – usually using divine intervention, or some unknown spell or magic, or some secret passage that was unbeknownst to the reader – that comes in at the last second and saves the day. Especially in the fantasy genre, the deus ex machina mechanism is disliked by readers in general. The issue with this is it doesn’t allow the characters to overcome the problem on their own. Additionally, it’s not fair to the reader. It would be like reading a mystery novel, constantly trying to guess who the murderer is throughout the book, only to discover that the murderer is no one that was ever introduced anywhere in the novel before. It ruins the experience.

For those that may be struggling or wrestling with their story right now, trying to overcome a roadblock, I encourage you to either work through it and/or rewrite it. Don’t give in to the deus ex machina. It’s the easy solution, I know, but it will also degrade the quality of your story. A solution that worked for me was to engineer the solution by mind mapping my story arcs and character motivations. It is like the movie Apollo 13, where the astronauts were in trouble and the guys back at NASA had to come up with a solution using nothing but the tools that the astronauts had. In hopes that it gives you motivation, here is the scene:

[Several technicians dump boxes containing the same equipment and tools that the astronauts have with them onto a table]

Technician: We’ve got to find a way to make this

[square CSM LiOH canister]

Technician: fit into the hole for this

[round LEM canister]

Technician: … using nothing but that.

Are There Only 7 Basic Plots?

According to Christopher Booker’s THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS, he has been able to reduce every fiction novel down to its most basic plot element and discovered that there are only 7 different plots possible.  I did not have the time to read such a voluminous book, so I read this article instead:

When my good friend showed me the article (which summarizes THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS), it left me disheartened. I felt a wave of discouragement, as if it’s all been done before. I felt like my goal of ‘being as original as possible’ had just been rendered null. However, I realized that despite the lack of variety in plot choices, every story is unique because it’s always about the story, and how the characters choose to overcome the specific challenges that face them. The story and their characters are what make each novel unique, not the plot.

THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS goes more in depth into the psychology as to why we are ‘programmed’ to imagine stories in these ways. Please read the article and/or book for a more in-depth look at what the seven basic plots consist of, but I have provided a short list below:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

On the flip side of this argument, I just finished reading On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and he talks about how you do not need a plot to write a book. When he writes a story, he conceives of a single situation and then a book is born.  For example, what if a girl that was bullied through high school had telekinesis? Carrie. However, in my opinion, the ending to a situation-based story can feel like it is lacking closure when compared to the ending of a plot-based story.

My story (as I’m sure many of you will also say) does not fall within one specific category listed. I have some of The Quest, but mostly my story falls into Overcoming the Monster. However, the “monster” in my novel does not fall into the 3 basic roles listed in the article. Regarding the Quest, while I do have a party of companions that follows my hero, they did not encounter obstacles on the actual journey… the obstacles they encountered (among discovering a runaway traitor or “monster”) happened to them at home and are the reason why they left to go on the journey.

So, are there really only 7 types of plots? I welcome all your thoughts and opinions on this subject. Please leave a comment.