The Supernatural–A Modern Deus Ex Machina

*I’m on vacation and reblogging this from a few years ago!* 

Deus ex Machina—this phrase means “god from the machine” and was originally a stage device used by the ancient Greeks in which a god would be lowered to the stage using a crane. So, the god would literally come from a machine. He would also be placed right in the middle of the action and give advice or solve a problem.

Dionysos Theatre in Athens
Dionysos Theatre in Athens

In modern literature a deus ex machina is when something unexpected happens that provides a contrived or artificial solution to a problem. Typically this problem is unsolvable. I can can forgive the ancient Greeks for their simple and obvious solutions to problems, after all, they didn’t have the sophisticated special effects we do now.

I consider it a cheat in modern stories.

Today the deus ex machina is magic and things supernatural. Your protagonist in a bind and you can’t figure out a way to save him? Give him or his companions some supernatural powers! Have a character who needs to die, because that’s the only logical conclusion for your storyline, but you don’t really want her dead? Easy. Have someone magical come in and heal her, or better yet, turn her into a supernatural being! For the big bang, bring her back to life.

This happens a lot in middle grade and YA literature, movies, and TV shows, because the current fashion dictates constant action and conflict. Of course, action, conflict, and tension are what make a story worth reading, but when they are taken to the ultimate extreme, we end up with stories in which impossible solutions are given for impossible problems. The deus ex machina. Perhaps this is why so many stories now involve supernatural beings (witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves, etc.), because they can rise above all the normal constraints of a story.

This fashion for constant action and conflict makes it so that modern stories jump right into the conflict and never let up throughout the entire book. What happens is that when the conflict starts at a fairly high pitch in the first few pages of the book, and it has to keep going, then the consequences get more and more severe. The conflict gets ramped up so high that the characters get put into impossible situations they can’t escape without some kind of supernatural contrivance.

Or things get to the point where the author has to kill someone. I’ve seen this happen countless times…killing someone important becomes the only option left. Unfortunately, in YA literature, authors don’t want their characters to die (or their publishers don’t), and so something supernatural has to happen to bring them back.

How many characters in YA literature get turned into vampires or turn their friends into vampires after a death? How many YA kids find out they have supernatural powers at exactly the moment when they are in dire peril? How many characters (not just in YA) are rescued by a supernatural being at exactly the right moment?

Of course, in literature you have to have these moments when the protagonist is in peril and has to come up with a solution. The problem comes when circumstances are so grim that what the protagonist suffers is unfixable or when the solution is completely contrived and over-the-top.

I just want to add that I typically love YA literature, with magic and without, and read a lot of it!


5 thoughts on “The Supernatural–A Modern Deus Ex Machina”

  1. I hate it when they cheat! I love magic and mystical stuff, but I feel let down when they don;t follow through. People die, teens and kids have to deal with death in their lives it is fine to put death in their books.

    1. kimberlysbarton

      I think it’s okay to have death in YA books too. It’s such a cop-out to constantly bring people back to life.

      1. There is a death in Bridge to Terabithia and the book is more powerful for it. Like you, Kim, I read a lot of YA and children’s literature and death is in some of the most noted of them. Charlotte’s Web, for example.

        1. kimberlysbarton

          Good point. I love both of those books, but I was thinking more of the contemporary YA books with magic, vampires, etc. Paranormal stuff. One of the things I like about the Harry Potter books is that people do die, good people and not just the bad guys.

  2. Pingback: Magic in The Lord of the Rings–Deus ex Machina Part II | Kimberly S Barton

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