Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Plot Devices: Deus Ex Machina or Chekhov's Gun?

Plot Devices:
Deus Ex Machina
Chekhov's Gun?

----Original Message----
"What are your thoughts on Good Deus Ex Machinas? I find them hard to pull off realistically in a plot." -- Puzzled Writer

A Deus Ex Machina is when the Hero doesn't find the solution to the story's problem. The solution is handed to them, or taken care of, by someone or something far more powerful.

From TV Tropes:
A Deus Ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way. If the secret documents are in Russian, one of the spies suddenly reveals that they learned the language. If the writers have just lost funding, a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their movie, and offers all the finances they need to make it. If The Hero is dangling at the edge of a cliff with a villain stepping on his fingers, a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The term is Latin for god out of the machine, and has its origins in Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.
Good Deus Ex Machina only happen when they've been set up to happen all along and were simply overlooked--which means they're not really Deus Ex Machina...

--They're actually a Chekhov's Gun.
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
Playwright Anton Chekhov (From S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.)

"Honestly, what kind of situation would require the use of a pair of fake arms and a remote-controlled wheelchair? Only, I imagine, a completely ludicrous one!"
Father Ted

The story opens with the sheriff saying that he's gonna cruise by the local huge creepy mansion later that night because the teenager that's watching over it is known for painting rude Graffiti. A house that big and that empty is clearly far too much of a temptation for a kid like that to resist.

meanwhile in the huge empty mansion, the radio and the TV blast out "Crazed Killer on the Loose in our area! Be on the look out...! News at Eleven."

Creeped out, the kid calls a few of his friends over to keep him company.

After a few forbidden cigarettes and a twelve-pack of beer, his friends start encouraging him to paint graffiti on one of the walls in the house.

Eventually, the kid gives in. "Why the hell not?" He goes to get his spray paint.

Right at that moment the monster strikes! It chases the troubled teen though the house and kills off his friends one by one. Blood! Guts! Mayhem! Screaming...!

Finally, the monster corners the kid on the roof with no place else to go.

Out of nowhere, a police helicopter shows up to rescue the kid 
-- Deus Ex Machina? 
The copter door swings open and it's the sheriff. He wasn't just keeping an eye on the kid, he was also watching out for the crazed killer that had been all over the news for days. 
-- NOT a Deus Ex Machina -- a Chekhov's Gun! The cop showing up was set to happen from the beginning. However, this works even better if... 
Before the kid can get up on the copter the monster finds a way to drag the helicopter down from the sky.

With the judicious use of a can of spray paint and a lighter, the monster's eyeballs are fried goo. The kid makes his escape straight into the REST of the cops heading up the road.

The cops shoot down the crazed killer and the kid goes on National Television saying how Graffiti saved his life.

The End~~~~~~~~~~~~~
An example of a Chekhov's Gun that LOOKS like a Deus Ex Machina can be found in the closing scene to the game Final Fantasy VII where the heroes tried everything to save the world, but failed. Suddenly, the world saved itself using the Life-stream--the power that had been the focus of the story's main problem since the story's opening. This Deus Ex Machina power had been there from the very beginning, yet had been overlooked making it in fact, a Chekhov's Gun.

However, an even better ending came in the sequel game Dirge of Cerberus, where one of the least understood characters in the Final Fantasy VII cast proved to have had a monumental power sleeping inside him all along--that was again, overlooked.

Getting it on Paper...
If you really want to use a Chekhov's Gun, it helps to think of a story as a Circle. It should End where it Began with the main problem at the beginning of the story being the last problem solved. This means you need to have the Solution to that main problem present at the beginning of the story--preferably in the opening scene, but discounted, or not thought of as anything special.

By the way, most Fairy Tales and Fables tend to have a Circular plot pattern -- ending where they began.



  1. I love it when someone asks a question and the answer is not only intelligent and articulated, but extremely helpful as well. Rock on!

  2. I really like the idea of ending the story where you began. I'm going to have to explore the circular plot idea with my next book. Should keep things very interesting.

  3. Excellent post, Morgan. I've never heard of Chekhov's gun, but I recognize it as something I use in some of my stories. Nice to have a name for it.

    I assume that a deux et machina solution for the crazed monster would be to have his equally crazy wife show up, screaming at him, "Get the fuck home and cut the goddamn grass, you lazy slimeball. Geez, I shoulda' listened to my mother. You're nothing but a..."

  4. HI Morgan. I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm in the middle of reading Lost Star and really enjoying it. I was wondering if you were planning on writing any more books in this series? The world-building behind the Skeldhi is fascinating.

    Thank you!

  5. Hi Morgan, I hate to bother you via comment section but you're the only really good gothic erotica writer I know of whose blog I also know. (I'm an avid reader of your articles and rants, despite my lack of comments)

    I'm writing a school paper on how the ways society views sexuality has changed and warped the traditional vampire myths, and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions on your opinion about it.

    If you have some time to spare, please email me at and I'll email you some questions ^^