Admittedly, I spent more time than I probably should’ve this week reading analyses and reviews and predictions following Game of Thrones’ battle of Winterfell. (No spoilers here, I swear!) And one critique that especially piqued my interest was the idea that the episode relied too heavily on “plot armor” to keep certain characters safe.
I have since come to learn that “plot armor” is a common term in the film and TV world, but this was the first time I’d heard it. It refers to the idea that a character is too important to the story to die, so he or she will be saved from even the toughest circumstances. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when the armor is overused and characters are improbably and inexplicably saved out of nowhere, it starts to look like lazy writing.
You may know these moments—when a character is in an apparently hopeless situation, and something just a little too convenient happens to get him (or her) out of trouble—by the term deus ex machina, or “god from a machine.” This comes from the ancient Greek and Roman theater tradition of delivering a god onto the stage in a crane-like machine to determine a play’s final outcome. Maybe there’s no real explanation for what happens, but if the god says so, so be it.
For example, some would consider Sam and Frodo’s rescue by the eagles in The Lord of the Rings to be a deus ex machina. Others suggest that the connection between Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands in The Goblet of Fire is a sort of deus ex machina, as Harry had no way to know about the priori incantatem effect and would have almost certainly died had it not happened.
So what’s the problem here? Sometimes, nothing. In Goblet of Fire, I’d argue that particular piece of plot armor was integral to Harry’s experience and the plot of the series moving forward. But overuse of plot armor tends to do three things: First, it makes for some eyebrow-raising moments in a story, challenging the readers’ suspension of disbelief. Second, it lowers the stakes. If you know your hero is going to be mysteriously saved no matter how bad things look, you’re not going to be invested in the action. And third, it undermines the character by coloring every achievement as luck rather than skill.
How can you, the author, avoid pulling a god from a machine when the going gets tough for your protagonists?
When it comes to getting main characters out of sticky situations and resolving your stories, there are two key things to remember if you want to keep the gods out of it (and you probably do.)
1. Keep an eye on cause and effect
First, make sure every solution—and especially the final resolution—is driven by something in the story. If the best readers can say is, “Well, the book’s not over yet, so he must survive,” you’re overusing plot armor. The main character doesn’t have to be the one to save the day every time, but it’s important that every “breakthrough” is the effect of a clear cause—something your protagonist (or a supporting character) has done, thought, or said. In other words, if you want eagles to swoop in and save the day, readers will be more likely to buy it if somebody on the team knows how to call them.
2. Plant clues building to the resolution
Have you heard of Chekhov’s gun? That’s the Three Sister’s playwright’s admonishment that, if you’re going to put a gun on the wall in Act 1, it had better go off in Act 3. His point is to avoid red herrings, but the rule can be reversed just as well. If there’s going to be a gunshot in Act 3, you’d better show us the gun in Act 1. Planting clues like that will make a shocking ending a little more logical for readers.
This isn’t necessarily the same as foreshadowing—it can be incredibly subtle, and we can see it in action if we go back to our Harry Potter example. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry selects his wand, Olivander notes that it contains a feather from the same phoenix as Voldemort’s:
“I remember every wand I've ever sold, Mr. Potter. It so happens that the phoenix whose tailfeather resides in your wand gave another feather... just one other. It is curious that you should be destined for this wand when its brother gave you that scar.”
This passage is a “gun on the wall.” Even though it doesn’t give Harry any more agency over the situation in the graveyard, Olivander’s observation primes the audience for what happens the moment the two wands meet. We know they’re connected, so we’re willing to believe that connection could save Harry’s life.
What are your favorite examples of deux ex machina, and how do you avoid it in your writing? Comment below or drop me a line to share your thoughts!