A few days ago, my friend and editor Ellen wrote a blog post about the literary technique of Deus Ex Machina – namely that writers shouldn’t do it. I’ll do her the honor of quoting a bit of her blog post here:
Then we come to the God in the Machine. Joe Character is lost in space; out of interstellar shipping lanes, alone and drifting with no power and no hope for the future. Along comes Jane Character out of nowhere just in time to save the day! Please. I can’t even begin to calculate the odds! The average distance between stars in our galaxy is about 4 light years. That makes our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, dead average in terms of distance (4.2 light years, if you’re keeping score) but that’s still 4.2(5.87849981 × 1012) miles. I can’t even write that out—I lose track of the zeros. How likely is it you’re going to bump into someone?
Fine. Got it. In my writing, I’ve really tried to avoid doing this. I’m sure that if I tried, she would call me on it before I had a chance to hit publish (love ya Ellen!).
But…there is a certain writer that I love who uses a Deus Ex Machina in many of his novels, and I LOVE IT.
I was reorganizing my bookshelf today and discovered I have a bit of a Cussler obsession. I actually didn’t start reading his books until 4-5 years ago, but in that time, I’ve developed a robust collection of Cussler books, both paperback and hardback. Check this out:
In a lot of Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books (and a few of his other recent series as well), he has actually inserted HIMSELF as a character. And not just any character, but a seemingly quasi-omnipotent savior. Just like Ellen’s previous example of someone being rescued in the middle of space, our oceans are vast and largely unexplored. Every so often, we hear about a guy who was lost at sea for 6 months or so. How was he out there for so long, undiscovered? Just like that plane from Malaysia was never found – the ocean is ridiculously big.
So invariably, Dirk Pitt or one of his other protagonists is facing the end. Cussler has painted himself into a corner and Pitt is seeing the gates of heaven. Suddenly he wakes up on a yacht and a guy named Clive is sipping champagne and talking about just being in the right place at the right time. They talk for a little while and then our protagonist heads on his way. Within a few minutes though, the main characters are already at a loss for the name of their benevolent savior.
I was a little dumbfounded when I first read this in one of his books, but now I come to expect it. There is a bit of a “Fourth Wall” effect to it where the author gives the reader a wink and a nod. We all now it’s coming and the characters seem to get a sense of a world beyond their own as well.
So…Ellen says Don’t Deus Ex Machina.
I agree, unless your name is Clive Cussler. Then, by all means – go right ahead.