Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: Giving Deus Ex Machina A Bad Name

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It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but here it is:

If your characters’ plan is for a miracle to occur at a crucial juncture, then your characters don’t have a plan.

It would seem that goes without saying, but that is exactly what the characters do in the scene described in last week’s Left Behind Friday, NRA: Counting On A Miracle.  The characters can’t think of a way to get past a border crossing, so they fall back on a plan that, as one commenter says:

“Involves waiting for a miracle. And you’re not using that phrase figuratively- you mean an actual, literal, god-enacted, Jesus tap dancing on water, five thousand well fed people who never want to see another tuna sandwich miracle?”

The deus ex machina has a well-deserved bad reputation because it negates the plot and the actions of the characters.  If a higher power – or plain old luck – solves all the problems, then the characters’ efforts, sacrifices, cunning, courage, or lack thereof all come to nothing.  They needn’t have been involved at all.  Ideally, if some greater force than the characters is going to be involved, then they should do something to invoke it, create a situation that allows it to act where it couldn’t before.  If luck is needed, then it should be because the characters’ wit and courage has gotten them this far, and fortune favors the brave.  Even better, ridiculous luck could be a character trait for one of the characters, as it is for, say, Captain Jack Sparrow.

One could argue that Lahaye and Jenkins are simply using deus ex machina in its oldest form, honoring the gods by having them intervene in a situation that only they can solve, and show forth their glory by doing so.  But even by that standard, this scene is pathetic.  As Horace stated, the god from a machine should never be used “unless a difficulty worthy of a god’s unraveling should happen”.  In other words, the deus ex machina should come at the climax, when all other efforts have failed and the gods’ glory can truly shine forth.  Calling upon divine assistance to deal with a situation that any half-decent action hero should be able to handle easily means that your action hero is nothing of the sort, and your god is the only thing moving the plot forward.  If that’s the case, then why do your readers care about your characters at all?

To make the situation worse, this sort of thing is particularly out of place with this god, who has very specific things to say about expecting miracles on demand.

Heaven helps those who help themselves.

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