Deus ex Machina: Plot Devices to Avoid

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Sometimes while we’re tied up in our characters (or tying up our characters), lost in our plot, and furiously racing to the end of our stories, we don’t realize that somewhere along the way…we’ve hit a wall.

That terrifying, mile-high wall blocking the story that us writers stare open-mouthed gaping at. But, the wall stares back, demanding to know: “What’s next?”

Today we’re going to talk about what to avoid when we reach that wall. The devices that serve to weaken the intricate plots we’ve worked so hard to create. Let’s begin!

First up! Deus ex Machina, or the god from the machine

From Wikipedia, Deus ex Machina is defined as:

“When a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”

In essence:
deusexmachina
When all hope is lost, we resort to an outside source to suddenly rescue the character in such a dire situation. Whether it be from a god (for which this device is named) or a third party who hasn’t been prevalent in the story. One modern example was on a current Game of Thrones episode, when Jon Snow is trying to convince Daenerys to help him in the upcoming White Walker battle.
carvings

In a situation that seems hopeless (Jon can’t seem to convince her, regardless of his arguments), he conveniently finds markings in the mountain of dragon glass. Where there aren’t any forests. Or sacred trees. This seems to do the job, however, and serves to convince her. Thanks, plot device!

Using our character’s wit or knowledge of the situation is a more sound option and a more believable end to the situation. Major plot elements are better integrated when introduced gradually as opposed to unexpectedly and without prior mentioning.



Up next, Women in Refrigerators

This cleverly named plot device was coined by comic book artist, Gail Simone. This plot device earned its name after many avenues of fiction would murder its women and stuff them in refrigerators. It’s also well known as the Disposable Woman trope. TV Tropes defines it as:

“A female character, typically the wife, sweetheart or occasionally the mother or daughter of the protagonist, who is present in the story just so that she can be either kidnapped by the bad guys, thus becoming a Distressed Damsel, or find herself Stuffed into the Fridge, giving the protagonist a pretext for Revenge.”

Oftentimes, this can escalate to The Lost Lenore. So, what we’re looking at is this:
womeninfridges
One of the most popular examples is Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII.
Aerith Aerith’s death rockets the plot for the entire team of FFVII. Her character is beautiful and hits all of my favorite points in side character creation. However, without her demise, Cloud’s resolve wouldn’t be nearly as concentrated. Throughout the game, as well as Advent Children, her death haunts him and continues to power him through. When caught in a bind on what your characters should do next in a tight situation, oftentimes there are better solutions than killing one off for the sake of plot advancement.

Finally, let’s talk about Chekhov’s Gun

I sometimes catch myself giving characters items that are important to the plot and then forgetting about them. That’s exactly what Anton Chekhov described is his play critiques. Per Wikipedia:

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

We’ll use one of my own examples for this one:
chekhov

What’s important to note here is that the item doesn’t always need to be a gun. In Little Secrets, it was Lilith’s riding crop. Three of my editing team demanded that I couldn’t simply mention its existence without using it.
react - isabelle2
In React, Isabelle studies astronomy against her father’s wishes. Her mother secretly gives her a necklace that represents Isabelle’s love for the stars, and Isabelle is incredibly appreciative of the gift, going so far as to say it’s her favorite piece of jewelry. The first time I wrote her story, I forgot about the necklace and one of my editors mentioned it for me. I made sure to give it a lot more symbolism and meaning to her later on.

This can also work in your favor for scenes where you find yourself stuck. Instead of creating a Deus ex Machina situation, an item a character was given earlier in the story could finally serve its purpose.

I hope this helps you in your future works! What plot devices or tropes drive you crazy?

Happy writing!

All comics created by me with free clip art assets

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