Deus ex machina and the soul of a satisfying story ending
Summary: To be most satisfying, payoffs in stories should be set up physically, morally, and thematically.
“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” — Emma Coats (Price)
In story theory, the term deus ex machina has come to represent an unsatisfying ending in which the resolution of a conflict seems to “come out of nowhere” with little or no setup.
Supposedly, the phrase originates from the era of Greek theater. It’s used to describe the moment when the playwright had “written themselves into a corner” and the conflicts of the story became so difficult to resolve that they had to use the gods themselves in an intervention to work things out. (Britannica)
While surprising payoffs are generally a good thing, deus ex machina can leave audiences feeling that — as Coats says — the storyteller cheated.
In her book, Wired for Story, author and story coach Lisa Cron gives us a hint as to why:
“Since the brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect, when a story doesn’t follow a clear cause-and-effect trajectory, the brain doesn’t know what to make of it — which can trigger a sensation of physical distress, not to mention the desire to pitch the book out the window.” (Cron, Page 147)
At its core, the problem with deus ex machina is that the payoff isn’t earned. It lacks that cause-and-effect relationship.
I believe there are at least three different ways storytellers can earn a payoff that satisfies:
- physical motivation
- moral motivation
- thematic motivation
Conventional wisdom states that cause and effect must be established physically by the story events and decisions.
For example, in Aesop’s tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the boy lies repeatedly to his fellow townspeople, telling them that there is a wolf attacking the sheep when there is none. By the time the real wolf attack comes, the townspeople are so jaded and skeptical that they refuse to come to his aid.
The payoff here flows quite logically. There was a cause — the boy’s lies — and a direct effect that followed — the townspeople disbelieving him even when he tells the truth.
Example: reputation and responsibility
Let’s look at another example from a longer, more complex work.
In Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Fitzwilliam Darcy is established early on as the love interest for Elizabeth, the protagonist.
Here’s the setup Austen uses to make it satisfying when the two finally get together:
- Darcy and Elizabeth misjudge and misunderstand one another. Elizabeth cannot be happy married to a man she cannot respect. She sees Darcy as cold and impolite. Darcy cannot be married to a woman who brings his family name into social disrespect. Elizabeth’s family’s behavior is shameful. It seems the two will never be able to overcome these differences.
- George Wickham appears as a potential suitor to Elizabeth, but he is actually a villain. Darcy knows, all along, of Wickham’s reprobate character. In the past, Wickham tried to take advantage of Darcy’s younger sister and almost succeeded before Darcy stopped him.
- But respectability is everything to Darcy. Because his family image could be tarnished if people knew what happened, Darcy kept the events concerning his sister a secret. In fact, Darcy only discloses his history with Wickham when he is forced to in order to clear his name from accusations Elizabeth levies against him.
- Hiding the near scandal had an indirect effect. It allowed Wickham to continue to operate, looking for another young woman of whom to take advantage.
- Once removed from the social pressure of their previous environments, Elizabeth and Darcy begin to soften to one another.
- Then, Wickham runs away with Elizabeth’s sister. Elizabeth is devastated. She’s ashamed of her sister’s foolishness. But also, knowing how important reputation is to Darcy, she smarts from the realization that he cannot now associate with her. Just when she begins to understand him, he is gone forever.
- Yet, Darcy springs into action. He feels responsible. Elizabeth’s family would not have been vulnerable to Wickham had Darcy not hidden Wickham’s past sins. Darcy, at great social and financial sacrifice to himself, steps in and forces Wickham to marry Elizabeth’s sister, resolving the situation.
- Elizabeth learns of Darcy’s intervention and feels a deep sense of gratitude. She now has conclusive proof of his depth of character — and his true regard for her. When he returns and asks her to marry him, she says yes.
The story concludes with the couple having traded social respect for something more meaningful: a deep-held respect for one another.
A safe setup
Although more complex than The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the cause-and-effect chain in Pride and Prejudice is no less solid. The events in the payoff flow logically from what came before.
This “physically motivated” cause and effect is the safest form of setup. While it won’t guarantee that your audience will be satisfied, it at least guarantees that your audience won’t be unsatisfied by a failure to properly set up the payoff.
Every once in a while, a story comes along where the payoff isn’t motivated by the story’s physical setup and yet still feels satisfying.
In his landmark work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, writer and professor Joseph Campbell makes note of these seemingly serendipitous resolutions as they existed in myth and folktale:
“Unpredicted helpers, miracles of time and space, further [the protagonist’s] project; destiny itself (the maiden) lends a hand and betrays a weak spot in the [antagonistic] system. Barriers, fetters, chasms, fronts of every kind dissolve before the authoritative presence of the hero. The eye of the ordained victor immediately perceives the chink in every fortress of circumstance, and his blow can cleave it wide.” (Campbell, Page 466)
Writer and producer Dan Harmon, when talking about story structure in the 1988 film Die Hard, gives us some examples from contemporary works:
“Remember that zippo the bum gave [the protagonist]? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn’t seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love . . . Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4).” (Harmon) (Emphasis mine)
Why it works
I have a hypothesis about why these payoffs work. In many cases, these payoffs don’t really “come out of nowhere.” They have been set up; but they’ve been set up morally, not physically.
Here’s what I mean: Stories that resonate with deepest-held values tend to elicit strong emotion. We all have a sense of what ought to happen, given the rules of the story world. When characters act in accordance with our values — Darcy’s self-sacrificial choice to surrender his respectability, for example — we feel an innate desire to see those actions vindicated. When the payoff comes, it’s satisfying because it validates that desire.
The affirmation of values works both ways. This is why tragedies can be just as emotionally affecting and satisfying as stories with happy endings. If the protagonist acts in ways that go against audience values, the audience may feel a sense of vindication when the protagonist is punished.
In the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example, even though the events of the payoff are terrible — a wolf slaughtering the sheep — most audiences feel that the foolish boy has gotten what he deserves. It’s generally agreed that upsetting others, wasting their time, and making them feel foolish purely for one’s own pleasure is inappropriate behavior.
Example: tyrranousaurus rescue
While there’s a moral throughline in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the story does also have a strong physical setup. To better illustrate how moral setup and payoff works, let’s look at an example of a popular story that relies much more heavily on moral setup than physical: Director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Jurassic Park.
In the climax of the movie, Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler and the kids are cornered by a couple of ferocious velociraptors. There is no way out, and they are defenseless. Dr. Grant steps forward, placing himself bodily between the raptors and the kids.
Then suddenly, a tyrranosaurus rex appears from off screen. It lunges forward, attacking the velociraptors. While the dinosaurs are distracted fighting one another, Grant, Sattler, and the kids escape.
The appearance of the tyrranosaurus rex is surprising. It’s only very tenuously motivated by the physical story logic. The last time anyone saw the tyrranosaurus, it was running across the plains on the other side of the electric barrier (which was off at that moment but was turned on soon after). The tyrranosaurus would have little opportunity and even less reason to go to the park center where the final showdown takes place.
Yet, in the moment, the ending feels satisfying. A
Dr. Grant merited the ending. Over the course of the movie, he demonstrated self-sacrifice, stepping in to save the children and guide them back to safety. In the climactic moment, placing himself between the kids and danger, his actions underscore this. He has earned the rescue, and the story world obliges.
This isn’t sheer coincidence. The payoff is motivated, but it’s earned morally, rather than by physical setup.
Strong in the moment but weaker on reflection
Morally motivated payoffs can be extremely satisfying in the moment — especially if they hook into deeply held, universal values like the vindication of self sacrifice.
However, as audiences have the chance to think about it later and consider the physical story logic, payoffs that are only supported by a moral throughline may become less satisfying. This is, perhaps, a weakness of Jurassic Park.
Depending on your audience’s tastes, a morally-motivated payoff might need to be supported by additional setup, like physical story logic.
Lastly, thematic resonance can make a payoff satisfying.
Like moral setup, thematic setup can result in a payoff that seems coincidental but feels satisfying. Also like moral setup, if the payoff is too coincidental, it can leave audiences unsatisfied later, once they’ve had a chance to think about it.
But, when properly supported by physical or moral setup, thematic setup and payoff can elevate a story and deepen the sense of satisfaction an audience feels.
In the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, there’s a quite obvious theme at play: If you come to be known as a liar, people will disbelieve you even when you tell the truth. Since the fable is meant to teach children, it’s appropriate that the “moral of the story” be so plain and straightforward. Also because of the story’s simplicity, the same story events support both the thematic and moral throughlines.
In Pride and Prejudice the theme is buried a bit deeper, but it’s no less effective. Austen plays with a number of threads, but one of the main thematic throughlines is respect.
Elizabeth is on a quest to find love with someone she can respect as an equal. She must make the journey from pursuing the ideal she has in her mind to accepting the reality that’s available to her in the world.
Darcy comes from the opposite side. He immediate feels drawn to Elizabeth, but because of his imperfect sense of what is respectable, he feels conflicted. He must make the journey from being concerned about outward, social respectability to the inward respectability of the mind and heart of the woman he loves.
When the story events finally bring the two together, it’s deeply satisfying because audiences sense that both characters have matured along these journeys toward one another.
Likewise in Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant’s arc is satisfying because it’s thematically resonant. He begins the story rigid and brittle, unwilling to face the chaos and ambiguity of the future. This is represented through his profession, his bad relationship with technology, and, most prominently, his distaste for children.
The story events force him to confront this and grow through it. We track his transformation most visibly through his relationship with the kids whom he must guide to safety. At the end of the story, we see him with a child on each shoulder, transformation complete.
Why not all three?
Some of the most satisfying payoffs of all are successful because they layer all three types of motivation.
Stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Pride and Prejudice serve as great examples of how these motivations can be intertwined to great effect.
In scene-level work, small stories, and small setup and payoff arcs within larger stories, it may not be possible to establish all three layers. There may not be enough story material to support them.
But for larger stories and larger arcs within stories, audiences can benefit from the work storytellers do to motivate their payoffs with all three: the physical pieces they set in play, the moral choices their characters make (and the attendant consequences), and the thematic motifs and elements that undergird them.
The very opposite of deus ex machina, using these elements to set up and pay off your story arcs will help make your story rich and satisfying.
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