Friday, September 27, 2013

Cliches Explained, Part One: Deus-ex-machina

How often in reviews you hear something like: “Ugh, such a cliché! I’m so sick of this device/plot being used.” This leads to some aspiring authors believing that clichés are forbidden territory, and that their work needs to be 100% original, or else.

Still, clichés exist for a reason. In fact, if you read my reviews, one of the most common refrains you’ll notice is: “I love this concept, but the execution is very bad.” I’ve given high ratings to some pretty lame, formulistic stories, purely because they managed to entertain me and make a good impression; and I’ve given the down-thumbs to at least a dozen innovative and interesting stories purely because they didn’t go anywhere past the basic premise.

In other words, execution is everything. My purpose in this series is to check a few common cliché complaints, so to speak, and see if there isn’t a way to use them in a story without it seeming like a cop-out.


Deus-ex-machina when your characters are in a tough situation, everything is grim and there is no hope, and then the problem is resolved by some completely new and unexpected character, object or twist. (“IT’S THE EAGLES!”) It’s when the evil emperor succumbing to a previously unknown and unexpected heart failure, just before he gives the order of the execution of our hero. It’s the best friend coming back from the dead because of their noble sacrifice.

It’s when you’re expecting the one logical outcome to a situation, and then something comes out of left field and changes everything. In most cases, readers/viewers don’t like this device because they feel cheated. The author promised (indirectly, through choosing to write this sequence of decisions and events) one thing and then delivers another. Depending on the story, the choice to use deus-ex-machina could also lead to betrayal on a meta level, because it alters the “message” of the story, so to speak.

For example, if you choose to bring your character or their best friend from the dead thanks to their heroic sacrifice, that might seem like a wonderful happy ending, but what does it say for every character in your universe who has died and not come back? Did they not deserve it? Were they not good people? Had no-one before your character ever performed an act of heroism on this magnitude?

Depending on your mileage, deus-ex-machina could vary from the most blatant examples (oh, Tartuffe!) to the more arguable (Hello, Deathly Hollows!) but they all have one thing in common – the cop-out feel.

So how can it be avoided?

Enter Madoka Magica.

Now, just a disclaimer – people like to go into Madoka unspoiled. That’s not to say the story doesn’t work if spoiled – I think it does, really – but that depends on personal preference and if you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read on. Capiche?

And, in case anyone’s wondering why I’m using an anime as an example, the plot has been transcribed into manga format, which fits into the Lantern’s general mojo, so there!


Madoka Magica has a deus-ex-machina ending. After the show spends 11 episodes/chapters convincing us of cosmic inevitability and having the characters repeatedly being screwed by fate, titular character Madoka Kaname breaks the laws of space and time with her wish, thus becoming a goddess and changing the whole game.

And yet, the ending doesn’t grate. If anything, it works almost perfectly within the context of the story, and the reason for that is the strength of the writing, and some very key elements.

#1 Foreshadowing

In one of the earlier episodes, Madoka is being tempted to make a wish and become a magical girl. Kyuubei, the fluffy-mascot-slash-the-devil-incarnate tells her that she has more potential for power than any girl he’s ever met and thus she can make almost any wish in the world. He even throws the idea that Madoka may become a goddess, although I doubt he meant it so literally.

The show doesn’t dwell on this part, it uses it more as a hypothetical example of Madoka’s potential. However, that’s the beauty of it – when a character turns around and goes for that hypothetical, we’re surprised, but we’re not completely blindsided because we remember! And Kyuubei remembers, because he says so right before he fulfils Madoka’s wish!

#2 The “why?” question is answered

Why does deus-ex-machina work for one character and not another? In Madoka Magica, the titular character is literally the only person who can and will make a wish of that magnitude. This set-up is possible due to a combination of the in-universe laws and the characters’ own actions. For example:

#2.1 Madoka is the only one powerful enough

Originally, Madoka’s potential for magic is average, but thanks to Homura’s meddling, it multiplies by the thousand and she turns into a queen on the game board. Of course, that multiplies the potential for tragedy – the more powerful the magical girl, the more powerful the witch – but also, the more powerful the magical girl, the more powerful her wish can be. None of these things works without the other.

#2.2 Madoka is the only one who can make that kind of decision

Kyuubei doesn’t recruit girls at random – he goes after the ones with the most potential for power. He also makes sure to approach girls when they are at their most vulnerable. Mami was recruited when she was on the brink of death; Sayaka had an unflinching moral compass that hasn’t been yet tempered in the real world, so she is prone to extremes; Kyoko’s family was on the brink of starvation; Homura had just lost her best friend (and is possibly severely depressed and suicide-prone).

Madoka is the only one who has all the answers at the time of her wish. She knows the pros and cons and the loopholes. She is perfectly aware of what might happen and can thus make a decision that is truly selfless. None of the other girls could have made this possible because none of them were in Madoka’s position. Likewise, this is the reason why the experiment can’t be duplicated.

#3 This wasn’t the only possible outcome

Madoka Magica ends with a somewhat happy ending, but the decision made in the final episode wasn’t the only one possible. Madoka could have done as Homura asked – never made her wish and left other magical girls to suffer and die. The consequences would have been catastrophic, but not as catastrophic as the ones if Madoka did make an unwise wish and then turned into a witch (Apocalypse in 10 days, apparently.) And that, I feel, is the thing.

Deus-ex-machina endings leave very little room for deviation, which is often why, when the device is deployed, it feels like such a cop out. You spend all this time being convinced that there is no other possible outcome, when the other outcome happens, you’re pissed. On the other hand, another outcome, if justified in the context of the story, goes a long way.

And the plot device itself isn’t wrong on its own – it plays well into narratives where a person fights against fate, either on the side of fate or the person doing the fighting. And isn’t this what YA narratives are ultimately all about? Fighting against forces that feel bigger than you, trying to establish yourself?

What are your most hateful clichés? Can you think of an instance in a movie or book where they have been properly deployed? Let me know in the comments.

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