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An Infamous Ending: Deus Ex Machina

Screenwriting researchers, theorists, and gurus discuss many ways to build the best possible beginning to a movie, but few of them explain how to write a good ending (Field, 2005; McKee, 1997; Snyder, 2005; Trottier, 2014). These writers stress that to create a screenplay which hooks the audience, there should be a detailed beginning: “I cannot emphasize enough that this first ten-page unit of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay.” (Field, 2005, p. 23). Syd Field (2005), an influential screenwriting author, notes that screenwriters only have ten minutes to establish the story, character, and dramatic premise as the viewer will have already decided whether they like the movie or not in that timeframe (p. 23). From this perspective, structure theorists thoroughly map out story beats and functions within the first act (Field, 2005; Snyder, 2005; Trottier, 2014; Vogler 2007). It may be true that films need to capture their audience’s attention early on, but they must also leave them satisfied at the end (Morton, 2017). In fact, endings are: “the most important part of a dramatic narrative” (Morton, 2017). Consequently, certain types of unsatisfying endings are undesirable. The Deus Ex Machina is one such infamous method of concluding a story and it should be avoided at all costs (McKee, 1997, p. 344).

Figure 1: In Ancient Greece, an actor played the role of a god and was lowered on stage by a crane. (Hines, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998) defines the Deus Ex Machina as: “[A] person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” (n.p.) In essence, a Deus Ex Machina is an unexpected external solution that solves the plot. External solutions to a story’s end are frowned upon because they propose an easy way out of a convoluted situation. Aristotle (c. 335 BC, 2008) states: “The unravelling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’” (p. 17). A story needs to resolve itself through necessary or probable sequences.

Robert McKee (1997), screenwriting researcher and author, calls this plot device “the writer’s greatest sin” (p. 344). This is due to the coincidental nature of such an ending (McKee, 1997, p. 344). The use of the Deus Ex Machina by a writer often comes with criticism towards their skill (Wheeler, 2018). Even the famous author J.R.R. Tolkien faced backlash for repeated uses of plot devices in The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1968) (Wheeler, 2018). In War of the Worlds (2005), the seemingly invincible aliens end up defeated by bacteria. It seemed like humanity was doomed until, out of nowhere, aliens die, having fallen ill to Earth’s microbes (Spielberg, 2005). Perhaps the most well-known instance of the plot device comes in The Wizard of Oz (1939). In the end, Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, wakes up and realizes that everything was just a dream (Fleming, 1939). The dream device cancels everything that happened in the film because it was never real; it was all a lie (Trottier, 2014, p. 26).

Figure 2: Dorothy wakes up in "The Wizard of Oz" (Fleming, 1939).

The Deus Ex Machina makes for satisfying endings as it “not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience” (McKee, 1997, p. 344). All the tension built between the start and end of the movie brings an emotional rollercoaster upon the audience and becomes lost in a coincidental denouement. An external and seemingly random event should not save the characters at the last second (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998, n.p.). For example, in Jurassic Park (1993) characters got cornered by velociraptors with no way out; a Tyrannosaurus Rex comes in and eats the raptors, which opens up an escape path (Spielberg, 1:57:20). Movies can include coincidences, but they must be used sparingly: “Although there’s a place for coincidence in storytelling, a story cannot be built out of nothing but accidental events” (McKee, 1997, p. 37). The issue with Deus Ex Machina is that it does not bring closure to the story (Trottier, 2014, p. 26). It ends up being a cliché and leads to audience dissatisfaction (McKee, 1997, p. 37).

If Deus Ex Machina is to be avoided, how should endings be conceived? There is no concrete answer. However, the consensus among authors (Brody, 2018; Snyder, 2005; Trottier, 2014) seems to be a final confrontation followed by a resolution (Trottier, 2014, pp. 26–28). Jessica Brody (2018), a novelist, wrote that the finale: “Resolves all the problems created in Act 2 and proves that your hero has learned the theme and has been transformed” (p. 67). This definition requires a transformation from the hero, which may be true for most Hollywood productions (Trottier, 2014, p. 57), but not necessarily for every film. Blake Snyder, a famous screenwriting guru, created sub-beats to the finale beat in order to answer criticism he faced concerning the lackluster third act in Save the Cat! (2005); his five-point finale structures the final confrontation. However, it is closer to a general method of conflict management in a story rather than a final confrontation-specific recipe (Snyder, 2006, p. 58). The five points are gathering the team: where the hero prepares for the confrontation and may gather a team or collect tools; executing the plan: where the hero confronts the antagonist; high tower surprise: where a twist makes the confrontation more difficult; digging deep down: where the hero comes up with a new way of defeating the antagonist; finally, execution of the new plan: where the hero is victorious (Snyder, 2009, pp. 59–62). The structure is simple: prepare for an encounter, do the encounter, a force modifies the encounter, the hero adapts, and the hero wins (Snyder, 2009). As with most of Snyder’s work, criticisms are relevant, but the five-point finale dodges Deus Ex Machina as the hero must adapt and prevail by themselves.

Figure 3: There are two five-point finales in "Speed" (1994).

Despite being regarded as the most important part of narrative storytelling (Morton, 2017), endings are widely misunderstood, quite unlike their counterparts: beginnings. Deus Ex Machina is an infamous plot device used to resolve stories when the characters cannot do it by themselves. The device has existed since Ancient Greece (Wheeler, 2018) and was already frowned upon as Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) recommended against using such a convenient tool to finish stories (p. 17). Instead, modern conception simply requires confronting an antagonist and completing the protagonist’s transformation with a resolution (Brody, 2018, p. 67). Even if universally correct, which it is not, it leaves much room for interpretation, keeping the art of endings a mystery. As it is a cliché, the Deus Ex Machina is generally avoided in order to keep the audience satisfied (McKee, 1997, p. 37).

Bibliographical References

Aristotle. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published c. 335 BC)

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998). Deus ex machina.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised edition). Delta.

Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). The Wizard of Oz. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Morton, R. (2017, November 2). MEET THE READER: “The End” - Importance of the Right Story Ending. Script Mag.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (1993). Jurassic Park. Universal Pictures.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (2005). War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Snyder, B. (2009). Save the Cat! Strikes Back. Greenleaf Books.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937). The Hobbit. George Allen & Unwin.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1968). The Lord of the Rings. Allen & Unwin.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Wheeler, L. K. (2018). Literary Terms and Definitions: D.

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