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Author Topic: Deus Ex Machina  (Read 3401 times)

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Deus Ex Machina
« on: July 23, 2012, 03:58:35 AM »
A question that has raddled the inside of my brain many times is the common usage of dues ex machina in fantasy. I have read many mystery novels, where dues ex machina is seldom used, but mostly nver at all. I use that to my advantage, having my WIP somewhat "Low Fantasy."

 I have come to terms that magic, in and of itself, is a dues ex machina. In my current WIP, near the end of the book, a character uses magic, something he or anybody else for that matter hasn't used for the whole book. I understand the reasons I use it, but it comes at a dramatic battle. I feel like it cheats the story a little, but at the same time adds a sense of wonder and a twist nobody will see coming. Though with the very, very small bit of foreshadowing I'm using to ease the sense of cheating on my brain, some people might see it coming.

 This genre is fantasy, a genre known for magic anyway. But my questions are this: Is magic a dues ex machina, or am I wrong and confused on the matter? But the bigger question I have to ask is how to use dues ex machina correctly, if there is even a correct way to use it?

I thank y'all for answering. (if you do, that is)
                                                          C.Hill
« Last Edit: April 03, 2020, 08:57:57 AM by ScarletBea »
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Offline Nyki Blatchley

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #1 on: July 23, 2012, 06:02:30 PM »
I wouldn't say magic count as deus ex machina, as long as it's an integral part of the story.  Examples of magic as DEM would be a wizard who hadn't appeared before turning up at the last moment to save the hero, or a magic user suddenly saying "Oh yes, this is a spell I'd completely forgotten about that'll get us out of trouble."

Offline Fallen One

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Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2012, 06:16:01 PM »
I wouldn't say magic count as deus ex machina, as long as it's an integral part of the story.  Examples of magic as DEM would be a wizard who hadn't appeared before turning up at the last moment to save the hero, or a magic user suddenly saying "Oh yes, this is a spell I'd completely forgotten about that'll get us out of trouble."

 Agreed: if magic is coherent and follows its rules, it isn't necessarily a DEM, specially if the bad guys can use it too.
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Offline AnneLyle

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2012, 07:30:11 PM »
This genre is fantasy, a genre known for magic anyway. But my questions are this: Is magic a dues ex machina, or am I wrong and confused on the matter? But the bigger question I have to ask is how to use dues ex machina correctly, if there is even a correct way to use it?                                                       

Deus ex machina (literally, "god from the machine") gets its name from the end of plays when the gods would come down from the heavens on wires and solve all the characters' problems for them, with a wave of their wand, so to speak. If you have a wizard or other character do this in your book, regardless of whether they use magic or mundane abilities, then readers will feel cheated. This is not a "clever twist", it's pulling a rabbit out of a hat. If no-one in your book has used magic up to that point, yeah, that's deus ex machina. If no-one's ever used magic in quite this way before, that's a twist.

Personally I dislike it, and don't think there's ever a good way to use it, but I'm prepared to be proved wrong.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2012, 09:46:34 PM »
I agree with AnneLyle.  There is no "correct" way to use DEM, not in modern literature, and magic isn't a DEM.  That is, it can be but it isn't inherently so.  Magic should almost always be limited in scope and should generally have a cost proportionate to it's power.  If you have the equivalent of a genie granting wishes, then you likely have no story.  (The protagonist can just wish to have his problem solved and viola!  If he doesn't do that, then why the heck not?  Is he stupid?)   You can carefully detail how magic works in your world (see pretty much any Brandon Sanderson book) or you can be quite vague and general (see China Miéville's Kraken) but the reader generally has to at least have a feel for the limitations.  (Alternately, magic can be quite poorly understood by both the reader and the characters in the book.  It doesn't really matter how powerful the magic is if no one is capable of using it.)

If magic is the resolution to the main conflict of your novel, then generally speaking it needs to be established prior to the climax.  If there's a twist, it needs to be "...surprising but inevitable."  It's surprising in that the reader generally will not see it coming, but it should be inevitable in that once it occurs, the reader should smack himself in the head and think "Of course!  Why didn't I think of that!"  If you simply introduce magic out of the blue which solves the issue for the characters, that IS a DEM and your readers will likely feel cheated.

Offline Mordekai

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2012, 10:14:46 PM »
Much depends on how you plotted it, and how the magic has been already used throughout.
If the spell your character uses is something that would have saved their necks several times, yet they struggled on by without it, its going to beg the question "why the hell didnt they use it before".
But if you knew from the outset that you were going to be using this escape, then I would say that seeding it Chekovs Gun style could be a way to do it, couple of hints here and there that make no sense until the character suddenly glows and sparks green meteors....
If you've come to a dead end, and its the only thing you can think of, then maybe leave it a few days, dont even think about it, and then read it from the beginning to the point you are about to use it, and think to yourself, "is there anything I've left left untied, or a reference that I could draw on to suddenly open up."
While it may still at first feel like its out of the blue, at least you'll have something to hook it back onto from earlier to make it less of a DEM, and have the reader feel like its a bit less of a cop out.

Magic's not always DEM.
In my current work, I have established a workable runic magic system that borders on the scientific.
All spells are made up of runes, Each rune has a specific meaning, symbol and name, and when a mage understands the complex relationship between the runes, he can use their names ina specific order to unlock their power, (cast the spell) There are five circles of runes, each containing potentially more powerful runes, but are harder to learn, and use more of the mages personal source of power, so mega spells leave a wizard drained.
As the reader becomes familiar with the names of the runes as the characters cast spells, they will hopefully be able to work out what some spells might do before they read the effect...
Quite the opposite of DEM.

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2012, 11:00:23 PM »
Thanks you all for answering. I don't like using magic in a story, mainly because I've seen it used too many times as an easy way to get out of a situation. I hate it. But as I said, considering this is fantasy, most people will consider this as having magic. I do use subtle foreshadowing, which I hope few will see.

Ex: the protaginist in question who uses magic has the common "heirloom" or "magical item." That's one key I use, but some may not see that, interpretating that it's just a detail. My antagonist of the story uses magic; it's illusions, and in one chapter, I have one of the main characters feeling like they're being "pushed" into a situation. They feel and do different things which contradict with their character. How I foreshadow that is by the use of "an itch or burning sensation in the back of his or her head." It makes me feel less cheaty.

I have set up a restriction on magic, although not really original on my part. Pain and sound. Magic is produced when faced with strong emotions that deal with pain. Not your run of the mill, I'm angry at so-and-so, but more of the pain you feel when watching someone die. Not a pleasant experience, it's something I took from actually seeing someone die not by natural causes. There's no way to explain the rush of emotions that comeover you, but that's how magic works in my WIP. The antagonist is always in pain, usually by hurting himself physically or emotionally.

But at the thought of thinking magic is a dues ex machina. My first major high fantasy novels I read were LotR and Eragon. I detested the use of their magic, and didn't put it into the novel to begin with. But I knew I wanted to put it there, so I set foreshadowing up. I hope it works well. I DO NOT want to cheat the readers, and will probably give it over for family members and friends to read so as to see if they recieve that feeling.

Thanks again, C.Hill

EDIT:
If magic is the resolution to the main conflict of your novel, then generally speaking it needs to be established prior to the climax.  If there's a twist, it needs to be "...surprising but inevitable."  It's surprising in that the reader generally will not see it coming, but it should be inevitable in that once it occurs, the reader should smack himself in the head and think "Of course!  Why didn't I think of that!"  If you simply introduce magic out of the blue which solves the issue for the characters, that IS a DEM and your readers will likely feel cheated.

Yes, exactly what I'm going for. While it is used in the climax, (the great battle which isn't seen coming to the casual reader isn't the climax, but happens directly before the even greater battle of wits.) I am seeding in a lot of foreshadowing. I want that "Of course!" moment you're talking about. My hope is to weave the idea of magic so smoothly into the narrative that it's overlooked and not given much thought, save that one chapter that might break the ruse. But a reason I started writing was to make a good book, where you can't see the ending coming, where details are the deciding factor along with wit. I want to be smarter than the reader--sounds very condescending--something I've seen many famous people not do in stories and movies that have been credited as great. But there will always be that ONE person who'll see it a mile away. My grandmother, who has read thousands of novels, mainly mysteries. Another one of my goals is to fool even her. :)
« Last Edit: July 23, 2012, 11:41:51 PM by C.Hill »
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Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2012, 11:26:57 PM »
I prefer to build my fantasy worlds without any actual magic or other supernatural elements. Of course my characters still believe in magic, gods, or what not, but these always amount to mere pre-modern superstitions. You can have stories take place in fictional worlds without bending the laws of physics and nature.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2012, 03:22:03 PM »
I prefer to build my fantasy worlds without any actual magic or other supernatural elements. Of course my characters still believe in magic, gods, or what not, but these always amount to mere pre-modern superstitions. You can have stories take place in fictional worlds without bending the laws of physics and nature.

You can, of course, and if that's what you desire to write, then by all means write it.  I wouldn't dream of suggesting otherwise.  I would question, however, if those works should be labelled "fantasy."  To me, a defining characteristic of fantasy is the impossible - something that simply cannot exist in the real world.  It can be quite subtle - you don't have to have wizards on every street corner or dragons filling the sky.  But if you don't have some element of the fantastical, then it isn't fantasy in my opinion.

Offline AnneLyle

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #9 on: July 24, 2012, 03:42:14 PM »
The thing is, if you set your story in an invented world, you can't easily market it as anything other than fantasy. Ellen Kushner labels her work "interstitial", but most readers don't have a clue what that means!

Besides, there's almost no magic in "A Game of Thrones" and "A Clash of Kings" - if you cut Dany's storyline, there would just be a couple of incidents with the White Walkers. Which is, I suspect, one of the reasons the TV show has been such a big hit.
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Offline Fallen One

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Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #10 on: July 24, 2012, 04:19:15 PM »
Besides, there's almost no magic in "A Game of Thrones" and "A Clash of Kings" - if you cut Dany's storyline, there would just be a couple of incidents with the White Walkers. Which is, I suspect, one of the reasons the TV show has been such a big hit.

 I beg to disagree: there's quite a lot of magic going on in ASOIAF, though it's true it isn't as common/ trivial as other fantasy series.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #11 on: July 24, 2012, 04:40:06 PM »
The thing is, if you set your story in an invented world, you can't easily market it as anything other than fantasy. Ellen Kushner labels her work "interstitial", but most readers don't have a clue what that means!

Besides, there's almost no magic in "A Game of Thrones" and "A Clash of Kings" - if you cut Dany's storyline, there would just be a couple of incidents with the White Walkers. Which is, I suspect, one of the reasons the TV show has been such a big hit.

As I said, I don't think you have to have wizards on every corner.  Magic doesn't have to be a central or major element of the story.  But it has to be there, in my opinion.  In Martin's world, you have the verified presence of dragons in the past, even if only a few people are aware they still exist.  You have a weather and seasonal system which clearly does not follow normal scientific laws.  You have the White Walkers and the Others, the Red Witch, etc.  You have, in short, more than enough impossible things to establish that this is fantasy. 

There are lots of fantasies where the magic/impossible elements are low key and back-ground.  Jacquiline Carey's Kushiel series is an example, for at least the first six books.  (The Moiron trilogy ups the magical ante a bit.)  Gaiman's American Gods has no magic until the reveal at the conclusion as I recall.  Tailchaser's Song and Watership Down have no magic per se but the talking animals clearly puts it in the realm of the impossible and thus fantasy.  I'm not at all saying you have to have gouts of magic filling the book.  But there has to be something which requires the suspension of disbelief in my viewpoint.  YMMV.

Offline Eclipse

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Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #12 on: April 03, 2020, 08:14:41 AM »
Which books are you thinking ofwhen you say magic is used as dues ex machina.
« Last Edit: April 03, 2020, 08:21:15 AM by Eclipse »
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Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: Dues Ex Machina
« Reply #13 on: April 03, 2020, 03:48:01 PM »
Which books are you thinking ofwhen you say magic is used as dues ex machina.

Man oh man, if I could comprehend the inner workings of my mind eight years ago, I would tell you. I think I was 16 when I posted this.
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Offline Eclipse

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #14 on: April 03, 2020, 03:56:36 PM »
I believe you were thinking wheel of time.

Everyone’s doing maths now to work out your current age.
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