A question regarding Deus ex Machina


Cat loving Mercenary scum
Aug 9, 2013
Hello, I'm new here and am partway through writing my first novel, and I have a dilemma.

My main character is saved by an all powerful super weapon type situation at the end of the story. So far so cheap.
But if the whole point of the story is the search for the aforementioned weapon, even if the main character doesn't quite understand what's going on, does it automatically become weak for using such a plot device?

I'm worried that the core of my entire story will be a retread of thousands of other stories (though my style of writing almost certainly isn't).

I'm hoping that the use of an unreliable narrator will alleviate this, as he simply doesn't notice the obvious a lot of the time but I would like some advice on techniques to avoid cliche.

Thanks in advance.
Your question is a little vague, but if there is at least some suggestion that the super-weapon can do whatever it has to do, I don't think it will be cheating. If you give the super-weapon a function which was not hinted at earlier, and this resolves the conflict, this could be considered a weakness.
It might come over as being rather cheap, yes, but as long as this weapon of yours has been explored previously (which is certainly will be, if your story hinges on the hunt for it), then no, I wouldn't say it counts as Deus ex Machina. A good example of Deus ex' would be if your character was saved by another character who hasn't ever been seen before. Or if it didn’t seem at all possible for the other heroes to secure this weapon in time to save the main character, but managed to do so anyway. Deus ex Machina, essentially, is when the writer starts bending the laws of chance in a character's favour. It becomes a real problem if the reader can easily tell when the writer has done this. If this weapon is going to save your hero, make sure the reader can believe that this is possible. Don't have the other heroes barge in with it, having just inexplicably found the thing all of a sudden, and I think you should be just fine. :p
I would suggest it's simply how you've written it. Deus ex machina still exists in modern story telling, so appears to be acceptable so long as the audience is entertained. I rarely see any published books without their critics. :)

However, I would also caution that plot elements tend to be the least of a new writer's worries - writing in a competent manner for publishing is difficult for most people. Once you get up to 30 posts you'll be able to post an excerpt to our Critiques section for feedback and criticism. :)
Thanks guys, that puts my mind at rest somewhat. I've been writing since I was fifteen (fifteen years now) but never put anything out for public consumption before so I'm just a bit worried.
The weapon that saves the protagonist is mentioned many times throughout, though in rather vague terms. The end is just the first time the reader will see it in action.
Is there anything in the story that suggests the weapon may be able to save him? Is there any foreshadowing at all?

If you're plucking this from nowhere with no precedent, then yes it's Deus Ex Machina and an audience may balk.
There's loads of foreshadowing, just the exact nature of the weapon is alluded to but never explained properly. It needs to be that way to make the delivery how I want it, but you definitely know something bad is coming beforehand.
Sounds similar to Iain M. Banks Against a Dark Background, which is essentially the quest for the last lazy gun. Not to be fired but to be traded by the protagonist to quash a contract on her life - or something like that.

However for the life of me, I can't remember if she fires it at the end to get out of a pickle (nor if even it is there or functional - it's been decades since I've read it :D. I'm sure there are people with better memories on the site.)

The lazy gun was fired, yes, but not by Sharrow. I seem to remember her being tied up, whilst the dismembered arm of an android got hold of the gun. Then my memory cuts to Sharrow stood outside (or close, having maybe escaped through a water pipe?) the ruins of whatever temple she was being held in the basement of.


In response to the Deus ex Machina question, if what happens at the end is established as being possible at some other point in the story, then it's not a DeM and is fine.

If you do worry that your story might be a rehash of a theme, Darkchild, I would very much recommend reading the book Venusian Broon mentioned - Iain M. Banks' Against a Dark Background. It takes the fetch quest theme and manages to make it feel fresh. Seeing how someone great like Banks manages to solve the originality problem might give you ideas on how you too can do the same.
To be honest I've only read the player of games and use of weapons by Iain m Banks but I will give it a look.
Don't worry about the originality of the plot; the simple fact is that every plot has been written a lonng time ago. What is important is that the story is interesting with characters that the reader has some feeling for.

Having the reader trying to second-guess how it will all turn out, or using misdirection is all part of the fun. Who would have thought that Darth was Luke's father, Sam Lowry's happy ending was a dream or that Decker might be a skinjob? Sure there may be hints or references, but not always. It can be fun for the reader to spot plot devices used to point (or even misdirect) towards a certain ending, but it isn't always there.

You could even have the super-weapon seemingly saving your protagonist, but with a hint that there was an ulterior motive for this, or a price to be paid at a later stage (maybe in the sequel!). Maybe he gets the super weapon, doesnt know how to use it, or has it taken away from hm and that somehow saves him (think Ark of Covenant or Holy Grail endings in the Indy films).

Whatever you do, good luck.
It will definitely be cheap the way you've described it (though you've been fairly vague). An unreliable narrator is not an excuse for the lack of a real climax. Just remember that your climactic moment needs to present the very real possibility of failure. There has to be a struggle of some sort that can lead to two or more different outcomes. Find that struggle, and that is your real climax Perhaps you should have your climax be a battle to activate the weapon, or over where to direct it.
It's the first part of a planned trilogy. Obtaining the weapon occurs fairly early on, figuring out exactly what it is and what the supporting characters agendas are form the mid part of the story. And the climax is an ambush, rather than a battle.

@paranoid marvin. I'm all about misdirection. Viewed though the eyes of an arrogant, hyper focused sociopath, a lot is left to the reader to try and make sense of.
I think you're fine. The key thing with relating to both a Deus Ex Machina and a foreshadowed "cop-out" ending is that they devalue the story that has just occurred.If the heroes are fighting to defeat a great menace, but in the end they easily take out that menace thanks to something they had all along, even if it was foreshadowed, it cheapens their hardships and all the effort they went to in raising an army and rallying the people to protect the land, or whatever the story is.


If the device by which the menace is defeated is the entire point of the story, the tale isn't cheapened by it.

The perfect example is The Lord of The Rings.

There are two different stories happening in the book; Frodo's quest to destroy the ring, and Aragorn's quest to rally the kingdoms of Middle Earth against Sauron.

Had Tolkien chosen to make Aragorn's story the main narrative, it would have severely undermined the story when Frodo destroyed the ring and overthrew Sauron. Whether foreshadowed or not, Aragorn's efforts are essentially pointless, and all his suffering and hardship was worthless.


Because Tolkien made the story ABOUT Frodo's quest to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron, there is nothing cheap about the way the story ends. Aragorn's story is framed not as an effort to "save the world", but as subservient to Frodo's narrative; Aragorn is trying to buy Frodo time and create a diversion to aid the quest.

So it all comes down to how you frame your story. If the entire point of the narrative is to secure this weapon to save the day, you're completely fine because all of the trials and suffering that your characters endure is for that purpose.

If you frame your story so that something else is the main story, with the quest for the weapon as a secondary narrative, it will come across as cheap, and it will undermine the main story.
I like the idea of someone' effort and suffering being worthless. You're giving me ideas for my next story.
I like the idea of someone' effort and suffering being worthless. You're giving me ideas for my next story.

I saw a film somewhat like that recently, actually. It's decidedly realistic, as in the real world a person's lifelong struggles and effort often amounts to naught.
I kill my lead characters most of the time because of this. This is the reason the story I am alluding to in this thread is intended to be a trilogy. I didn't like the way the protagonist won so completely at the end so he needs to really suffer in part two.
In the third part I envisage him already dead and passing the POV to his killer.
What if the event is supposed to catch everyone (both characters and readers) by surprise?

What if, say, a concept is foreshadowed very briefly at some point in the story (i.e., Substance X could probably kill Person Y), and then materialised as a massive plot event during the climax (i.e., apparently Substance X can kill Person Y, and Person Z has secretly found a way to do so).

As long as it's explained afterwards, do you think that would that be okay?

PS: Sorry for the necro.
Great thread, and just what I needed. I have a novel at the ready-to-have-another-look-at phase and the ending is a little Deus ex Machina, though its hinted at along the way. But its been bothering me, and I definitely think it needs more foreshadowing, so this has all been very helpful!
/nod - Tinkerdan picked up on a bit of Dues ex in mine regarding a character. Just got to foreshadow stuff properly. Readers don't like switches unless it fits or is hinted at.