by Biljana Likic
He drags her behind a heavy table. It isn’t perfect, but at least it would provide some protection. He checks his gun and he is down to his last round. This would not be enough to kill Noir. Nothing would be enough to kill Noir. The target on Jack’s back would finally be met, and the notoriously heartless man would have nothing standing between himself and the destruction of the world.
“Carol,” he says, grasping her face. “Look at me.”
She snaps her fearful eyes up, shock leaving them bone dry and adrenaline reddening her cheeks.
“We’re good as dead,” he says.
With a click, Jack cocks his pistol.
“I have one shot left. Enough to distract.”
“You have to run.”
Leaning his forehead against hers, he rests for a moment, eyes closed, listening to Noir’s sinister approaching footsteps.
“I can’t be without you,” she gasps, hand rising to clutch his at her cheek.
He crushes his lips to hers, drawing courage from the stolen kiss, and then he shoves her hard down the wide laundry chute. He blocks out her scream of terror and outrage.
She was always too stubborn for her own good.
Noir’s footsteps slow.
“I can hear you trembling.”
Sure enough, his hand is tapping the gun against the table with the force of its tremors. He swallows, lifting himself up slowly, planting his feet firmly beneath him as he stands to face his mortal enemy. Noir, the vilest man to ever live. Noir, whose face is stretching into an evil grin even as Jack’s shaking hand rises, cold, deadly metal heavy in his grip.
“Do you mean to shoot me?” Noir asks, amused.
Jack pulls the trigger. The gun clicks.
It’s a dud.
His face crumples. As a last resort, he throws the gun pathetically at the now chuckling Noir, shoulders dropping in pitiful defeat when it is swatted aside like a bug.
“It’s too bad, really,” Noir says, and the last thing Jack thinks when he hears Noir’s pistol go off is that he will never hold Carol again.
His breath is knocked out of him, his knees collapse to the ground, and he lies there heavy and beaten.
But something isn’t right.
He feels no pain other than from the impact with the floor. There is a heavy weight on his legs. Would his death be so immediate that hurt was mercifully taken away?
No. Because then he hears it.
She is screaming, screaming at Noir to leave him alone. She crawled her way back up to try to save him and threw him down before the bullet could hit home. She is sobbing heavily, draping her body over his, and all Jack can think is Stupid girl, this is why I love you so much.
“Don’t kill him!” she cries. “I love him!”
Silence. Jack forces his eyes open to look at Noir. He is shocked to see him gazing at the fallen couple with sorrow and remorse.
“What affection,” he says, “that you would risk your life after he saved it.”
He lowers his gun.
“I see there is still humanity in this world,” he says. “Your devotion has struck evil out of me. Your love has truly moved me to the path of light.”
Jack stands, pulling Carol with him. He puts one arm around her, and another, hesitant at first, but then strong, around Noir.
“Let’s just go home.”
Arm in arm, they leave the building, on the road to becoming life-long friends.
The world is safe.
Now doesn’t that just piss you off?
Imagine: an amazing book; fantastic action; a budding romance between two strong people, with the two strong names of Carol and Jack; an evil man, Noir, so called because his soul is black as night; a terrifying plot to destroy the world which is executed in such a way that nobody would dream of calling it cheesy or old.
And then you get an ending like that.
This, my friends, is what we call Deus ex machina: God from the machine. It is a sudden, unexpected, totally ludicrous, eye-rollingly, glaringly, unforgivably cheap way of resolving a conflict, where the thing causing you problems is suddenly not causing you problems because of a contrived turn of events. It is from the wise words of Horace’s Ars Poetica, (literally Art of Poetry,) where he tells poets to never, ever, fall so low as to use a god from the machine to solve problems.
What he’s talking about goes way back to Greek tragedies, where during the play actors playing gods would be lowered onto the stage with a crane or appear from below with the use of a riser and a trap door to solve all the difficulties those silly little mortals had gotten themselves into. The phrase actually refers to this mechanical manipulation, or the making of something with one’s hands. So a better way of translating deus ex machina is “God that we make” or “God from our hands.”
So here’s the lesson of this article:
Don’t do it.
A sad ending where Jack dies is better than a bullshit ending where an evil, heartless, unsalvageable man, who never exhibited any kind of change of heart when he saw all the other couples who loved each other killed before his eyes, is suddenly saved. If your plot is such that you can’t think of a way to end it happily, don’t end it happily.
Believe me, it’ll feel wrong if you take something like the story of Jack and Carol and try to turn it into fluffy lesson that love conquers all. Because frankly, it doesn’t, especially not villains like Noir. Keep the ending true to the story because otherwise readers will notice that you didn’t listen to the voice that said “Kill him!” but rather to the voice that said “That’s not marketable” or “I don’t want a sad ending” or “But he’s hot”.
If you didn’t want a sad ending, you should’ve thought of that before you got to this point.
Here’s another important point I’d like to stress.
Deus ex machina isn’t only restricted to getting happy endings. There are people that are the opposite of those who want happy endings: the ones that want the shock value of death and destruction.
Please don’t kill the main character in the end just because you want to shock the reader.
If the story is well constructed, and you have a good reason to kill them, then by all means, go ahead.
But before you do, ask yourself:
Is he dead because he slipped on a puddle of water and cracked his head on the corner of the counter in a cruel twist of irony for all the people he’s ever wronged?
Or is he dead because him living is inconvenient to your shocker ending so you decide that a sudden invasion of giant squids takes him out with their mutant gills that can breathe air and tentacles that have morphed into three-foot-long knives because of a previously unheard of influx of radioactive solar flares?
Make your ending suit you story. A forced ending will sound as contrived as it probably is. A lazy ending will leave readers unsatisfied. A writer-selfish ending will have people confused and questioning your intelligence.
Deus ex machina.
Challenge! Because I always seem to have these in my articles.
Come up with your own examples of deus ex machina. Let’s get our funny going.
Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She just graduated high school and is on her way to university where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here.