You can do better than that.

21 Jul

by Biljana Likic

~~~

Take this article with a grain of salt.

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.”

“No—”

“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.

“You can.”

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.

Carol.

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.

The end.

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.

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.

Seriously.

Deus ex machina.

No.

~~~

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.

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26 Responses to “You can do better than that.”

  1. Samantha K. Walker July 21, 2010 at 12:41 AM #

    Ok. I know it’s not my own example, but… Breaking Dawn. All of this tension builds up, you expect this huge, epic battle, and then… And then the villains basically give up. “Oh, this was a misunderstanding, and it appears all of our allies are fleeing, and you may or may not have an impenatrable shield. I guess we’ll be on our way now!”

    Feh. 😡

    • fromawriter July 21, 2010 at 2:49 AM #

      I totally agree with Breaking Dawn, it was the least favorite I had with the series. My younger self was disappointed in a way, but I gradually had to accept the ending and the whole bunch of characters.

      • priscillashay July 21, 2010 at 12:53 PM #

        haha! I TOTALLY agree with you about Breaking Dawn…so much so that larissa_sarah on Twitter is having a “Getting it Write” contest on her blog where you can rewrite the ending of a novel you weren’t happy with or add a bit more to a story you thought could’ve went further and I’m using Breaking Dawn.

        Anyone else interested?? I’m kind of excited about it: http://www.larissaslife.com/2010/06/doing-it-write-larissas-life-creative.html

        • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:00 PM #

          Ooooh interesting! Thanks for the link!

        • Caitlin July 23, 2010 at 2:55 AM #

          jumping into this late, I’ve decided that the one thing Stephanie Meyer can’t do is choose the right place to end her work. I feel like she’s always listening to the whining fans wanting more and then she gives it to us and I personally am like “no, this would have been so much better/more significant if it had ended one book/chapter ago.”

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:00 PM #

      Ughhhhh that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. So stupid.

  2. fromawriter July 21, 2010 at 12:47 AM #

    So that’s what it’s called? Deux ex machina, oh, I usually call them the wtf happened moments. I’d contribute to mines later, hehe for making a deux ex machina.
    But on a sidenote, I really liked what you wrote! I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it, haha.

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:02 PM #

      Haha thanks for the complement :D. Maybe in a few years you will. Maybe by then it’ll be, dare I say it, published ;).

  3. tymcon July 21, 2010 at 4:52 AM #

    I love when i learned this term I could see it in movies. I think it was a day before x-men Orogins came out that I leanred that term. BUt isn’t that movie full of it. Just like oh I want the antaganist to escape. I know have a mutant come in wave a stick and make a shockwave. Have to have new guy completly not see the tall guy whit muttenchops.
    And the bit where the nuclear place is falling down. I’m not sure if that would count as a god of the machine (since he can’t die, no problem) but he came out of nowhere.
    Anybody read eye of the world, by Robert Jordan? The end of that was god of the machine. Well I think ti was. IF someone read it I think they’d agree…hopefully.
    Rant over:P

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:04 PM #

      Yeah there was a LOT of it in that movie. And I’ve only ever read one book by Robert Jordan and it was…strange. I can’t remember the title. I think I might’ve been too young hehe.

  4. Susan July 21, 2010 at 6:54 AM #

    Great post, Biljana. I’ve heard of the whole deus ex machina concept, but you laid it out very clearly here. And this is just a fabulous way of putting it:

    “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.”

    As for my own example, I would have to say the ending of Harry Potter felt sort of cheap and hokey. It may not be quite deus ex machina since we’re sort of prepared for the whole “love saves” bit, but it was definitely out of left field for Dumbledore to just show up and explain it all in this weird limbo world.

    • Victoria Dixon July 21, 2010 at 7:30 AM #

      End of my first draft had a Deus ex Machina even though I’d foreshadowed it. It’s not JUST that it comes out of the blue. It frequently does because the author paints themselves into a corner where an unwanted outcome is needed, but it doesn’t have to happen like that. Deus ex Machina is where something outside the main character’s control comes down like the hand of God in old morality plays and fixes everything. (Read the old English play called “Everyman.”) My personal DEM was set in motion by my mc, but it was still DEM. Fortunately, it was just a first draft. 🙂 For a great example of DEM in the (modern) public arena, see the end of the remade Planet of the Apes. Bleh.

      • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:10 PM #

        Oh god I don’t even want to know how Planet of the Apes ends. I can already picture some sort of heavenly light shining down and turning everyone pure.

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:08 PM #

      Glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was clear. I was worried my ranting might muck it up a bit :P.

      And yeah for HP…She did have a huge “love is the answer” lead-up. I didn’t mind the battle ending the way it did but the 19 years later…

      I don’t know about you but it kind of ruined the power of the end of the battle for me, you know? It was just too much Happy after such a grueling experience.

  5. Rowenna July 21, 2010 at 8:09 AM #

    I don’t know, I think anything involving giant squids has merit…

    I’ve seen a lot of the random person dying at the end of books “twist”…but maybe I shouldn’t mention them in case someone’s in the middle of reading one!

    How about the ever-convenient yet unexpected and untimely death of person standing in the way of a couple’s true love/third member of love triangle? And it’s even better (er, worse) when the author can’t bear to kill them off so has them move away to Timbuktu or perhaps get sent to prison for something completely unrelated instead. ‘Well, Sally, thank goodness that meddling ex-boyfriend of yours got thrown in jail for that chicken farm robbery he committed fifteen years ago that we didn’t know about until now! Happily ever after, then.’

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:12 PM #

      THOSE! Those happen so often in bad romance novels!! It’s ridiculous! Arghhh I hate them they just make me want to gag!

      And you’re right about the squids. I’ll never mock them again.

  6. Savannah J. Foley July 21, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

    “If you didn’t want a sad ending, you should’ve thought of that before you got to this point.”

    I love your tone here ❤

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:19 PM #

      Well…I try :D. Lol

  7. Lydia Sharp July 21, 2010 at 9:30 AM #

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read all week. Just plain excellent.

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 5:19 PM #

      Thank you so much!

  8. jenn fitzgerald July 21, 2010 at 7:10 PM #

    lol Billy! I think a giant squid army would be awesome and would make me forgive whatever ridiculousness they perpetrate! great article!

    • Biljana July 21, 2010 at 7:38 PM #

      Thanks :D.

  9. Victoria Dixon July 22, 2010 at 2:46 PM #

    Alas, you’re not far wrong. The chimp lost in the first five minutes of the film finally arrives and convinces everyone to be friends. Sigh.

  10. Caitlin July 23, 2010 at 3:01 AM #

    I seriously love you Biljana, you are awesome.

    common & super annoying DEM (IMHO) the love triangle that is solved by killing one of the guys off (Pearl Harbor I am looking at you, pathetic excuse for a WWII film…)

    This could in theory be done well (maybe) but for me it’s such a cop out. I’m not sure if it counts as DEM unless the death is totally unexpected, like the Mean Girls fake-out, but it’s annoying regardless.

    Of course just to mention one last film here, Adaptation pretty famously uses a Deus Ex Machina for its ending, this is like the only time it’s ok (it fits with the film, trust me.)

    • Biljana July 27, 2010 at 10:54 PM #

      Lol stop it, you’re making me blush.

      And yeah I remember Pearl Harbour. The biggest groan came from the kid being named after the dead guy.

      I actually think that DEM can be used SPECTACULARLY.

      When it’s a parody :).

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