Picture this. On page 288 of a 289-page book, Cali is besieged. Sharks below. Jellyfish at the surface. Copters armed with assault rifles above. But wait! Look! Out of nowhere, a boat materializes on the horizon. Whew. We’re relieved she’s safe, but—uh, why? What conveniently brought this rescue at exactly the right moment?
A miraculous intervention, that’s what. As Aristotle observed in the Poetics (about 335 BC), the solution must be “necessary or probable” rather than a “contrivance.”
He referred, quite literally, to a device used in ancient drama. A trapdoor opened, releasing a machine of the gods (deus ex machina). It rescued whoever perhaps deserved it—but not due to personal assets or forethought. In other words: an artificial escape from dire straits.
And that’s just the problem. Successful endings build from characteristics, opportunities, and possibilities that the author foreshadowed, preferably in the first chapter. As Robert McKee put it in, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting:
Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives...Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.
That’s a heavy indictment. Also an entirely true one. Story, whether Greek tragedy or contemporary urban fantasy, is an inherently moral art form. Certainly it’s about entertainment. Fiction we don’t enjoy is only for the classroom (and maybe not even there). The primary purpose of most stories is still a moral one. How can that possibly happen if either the protagonist—or the novelist—relies on a perfectly timed, perfectly improbable miracle?
Yet plenty of worthy writers have resorted to this or something resembling it. There’s Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, John Gay, Moliere, Charles Dickens, William Golding, and J. R. R. Tolkien. That’s not the point. Why use it unless you must? Here’s how you needn’t.
At least once, hint at any trait, character, or device you’ll need later on.
~ Supply almost but not quite hidden strengths.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Boo have qualities they’ll use later on. Because that’s set up in advance, nothing feels like cheating.
~ Use character arc.
What drives fiction? Struggle induces the protagonist to learn and develop. What earns a happy ending? The protagonist deserves it. Isn’t that more fun than the miraculous save?
~ Let the journey resolve the journey.
The ending should come from how each mistake or misstep or act of profound selfishness prepared the protagonist for this moment. What’s moving or memorable about a well-armed boat materializing out of nowhere?