Possibly the biggest opponent to fantasy and science fiction is the concept of Deus Ex Machina.  literarydevices.net gave a description of the term, but I’d like to add to that.  When something arises that the reader isn’t prepared for to resolve the conflict, the reader will be unsatisfied with the ending.  Let’s be honest, as readers, we WANT to believe the ending is plausible.  We’ll take some pretty hanky explanations as background or foreshadowing.

Image from The Two Towers used for educational use and review under Fair Use Doctrine. 

In The Two Towers, Gandalf basically said, Just hold off for three days and I’ll come kill whatever bad guys are left.  They fought for three days. Gandalf saved the day. No one batted an eyelash.

I’ve been speaking with Quintessential Editor about his book, editing mine, and outlining Sojourn in Despair.  That means I’ve been talking about magic systems like crazy.  Corey and I were talking about it, and I’d mentioned Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. I’m telling you, if you haven’t read these, and you write fantasy, stop writing and read this. It’s a solid group of guidelines.   Sanderson’s First Law is, “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”

I love fantasy. I love Sanderson’s work in particular.  The reason I love it though is because it has a sense of wonder. Bad fantasy destroys that sense of wonder with a sense of impossibility.    So when I read that law, I translate that to mean, “The better the reader understands the magic of the world, the more likely he’s going to accept that magic solved the problem.”

coverrevealIn The Journals of Bob Drifter, I took great care easing the reader into the magic system.  Some say I took too much care. But I take a great amount of satisfaction from the fact that no one has (as of yet) complained that the ending was too easy.  I spent some 110,000 words building up a villain that seemed unstoppable.  But as Grimm was doing dastardly things, I was explaining through a few characters how his power worked while also explaining how Bob’s power worked.  I feel if I hadn’t have done both, people would have called me out.  Actually, I was more concerned the reader would discover the trick too soon.  If that’s happened, no one said so yet. If you’ve read the book feel free to comment below regarding your thoughts.

I’m wracking my brain trying to determine a book that really failed at this. I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m sure I’ve read it, but I can’t honestly recall. But how do you prevent it?  Should you?

Should you?  Well, not necessarily.  (OK, you should TOTALLY prevent Deus Ex Machina, but you don’t always need a magic system which requires a degree in physics to understand).  Refer to the rule.  “An author’s ability to SOLVE conflict….”

What if you wanted to CAUSE it? Children’s, and young reader fantasy stories do this a lot.  No one sweeps in and saves the day with magic, but quite often magic is the cause of the problem.  I’d argue this is the case with Lord of the Rings.  Magic is far more responsible problems than it is solutions (Gandalf’s rescue included).  So…if you’re working on a story where magic is getting thrown around like crazy and all it does is make life miserable for the characters, GO FOR IT!  I don’t care how the magic system works.  It’s magic!

But what if the man is going to rely on magic?  Well then, the degree with which that magic is going to be relied upon must be that understood by the reader.  Here are a few things I try to do to avoid the problem.

One:  If Three is Good Enough for Tolkien, it’s good enough for me:  I consider this the LEAST an author can do.  I use this with foreshadowing and magic plot devices.  I make sure to mention the “trick” at least three times.  (Free autographed copy of my book if you can name the three instances I did this in The Journals of Bob Drifter.)

armageddon-1530229_960_720Two: The Mentor Magic Learning Montage:  I’m less and less a fan of this every time I see it and use it.  In 1,200, I took the mentor away JUST to avoid this.  Inevitably in most fantasy sagas, there’s the “mentor” who appears JUST as the guy develops his power.  How handy he shows up just in time to teach the guy how to become the hero.  It’s a common thing and not really a “sin” in writing. I’ve just personally grown tired of it.  (Though I did use a mentor archetype in New Utopia.  Even then, I added a twist just to be different.)  What this mentor can do is teach the user, and through him the reader, how the magic system works.  In these types of stories, there’s usually a “hint” (see above) at how something thought impossible could happen.  Or at least they do this next trick.

angel-1129922_960_720Three: Hang a Lantern:  When the character does something impossible, and another character goes, “How could that be!” The reader gets a clue that this is an intentional thing.  Then calmly waits for the explanation on how that should happen.  If you use this, you NEED to explain that later in the story.

Four:  Internal Dialogue:  This is the last one I use.  I used it most in 1,200, but I like it because it’s different.   The author can use conflict and internal dialogue to express learned experiences and ideas.  You can use the point of view of another character as well.  In New Utopia, one of my upcoming books, the hero, Wilum, does something impressive.  His mentor character (mentioned above) notices, then considers how it was done.  You actually see this quite a lot in Anime.

How do you avoid Deus Ex Machina?  Do you have a trick I don’t know about?  Please share it.

Thanks for reading,


15 thoughts on “Deus Ex Machina: When Magic Solving Problems Causes Problems

  1. Great post, Matt! I go crazy for magic systems, nothing quite has me hooked to a series (book/film/anime/etc) like a good magic system. My author friend and I discuss them a fair bit, and for his next book he’s actually developing one with his girlfriend; quite the cool couple activity. I am trying my best to make sure the magic in my book works and isn’t inconsistent, it’s hard but totally worth it. I’ll be using your blog post as a bit of a checklist for when the “big” magic events happen (off the top of my head though, I like to think I’ve checked them all already!) Thanks for sharing, Matt. Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I always want my posts to be helpful and motivating. I’ve learned though a big step is just thinking about it. Most times, if you’re aware of a potential issue, you can turn it into an advantage. Be sure to shout out wenever you make progress on your projects. Those are the posts I most love to share.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Everyone who writes about writing can do with a break from writing about writing, especially when life takes precedence! Nonetheless, I’m glad you’re back into the swing of things. It’s always a pleasure reading your thorough takes on such topics.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sanderson is a master of magic systems. I really love how Mistborn opens with some awe inspiring demonstrations of the magic, and then gradually reveals the rules, skills, and limitations. In one of his classes he talks about 3 variables that balance a good magic system: rarity of the ability to use the magic, preparations/requirements to use it, and the penalties/toll it takes on the user. For example, in The Matrix, the One can do anything, with 0 prep and 0 price, but since he’s one person, the rarity balances it out.

    In regards to The Journals of Bob Drifter, I think you managed the information very well. The ongoing mystery of the characters’ powers help give the story more unity. At first the audience is gradually learning more about the characters’ abilities, abilities the characters are already familiar with, so the slow pace felt natural, and helped keep me curious. Later the character and audience unite in trying to crack the mystery of powers they don’t understand, which was a nice change.
    I think it was a good way of engaging readers with something alongside but separate from the character focused subplots, though I feel the characters are one of the more developed aspects of the story.

    P.S. The review’s scheduled for February 23rd.
    Looking forward to reading Caught.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m honored Adam! Thanks so much for the heads up on the review. Caught should be out VERY soon unless something odd happens with the cover or the printed proof that I didn’t see in the digital proof.

      I pretty much watch and listen to as much Sanderson as I can. I mean to get back into the habit of listening to Writing Excuses. I need to be better about studying my craft. I’ll never sacrifice anything for reading or writing, but if you don’t dig in now and then, you’ll get caught off guard. Mistborn is still my favorite work from Sanderson, but Stormlight is quickly climbing the list. If you ever get the chance to go to a Sanderson panel, you should. It’s like a physics course for storytellers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed. One strategy I like is to try and block out time. For example, right now I’m aiming for an 8-10 hour weekly quota on writing. The lion’s share is currently going to book reviews, but I try to put at least 30-60 minutes each week into things like reading articles on writing theory and technique.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You asked how we avoid Deus ex Machina. It’s hard to say because we have no control over how much a reader understands the content. No matter how much foreshadowing we do, someone might still be surprised. However, I attempt to avoid it by writing about ordinary people having ordinary adventures. I use magic like garlic – just enough to enhance the main dish but not enough to notice its presence.
    This is my first visit to your blog. I really like it. Thanks for sharing.
    P.S. I tried sharing it on Facebook but it wouldn’t allow it because I am not a member of WordPress.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I appreciate anyone stopping by. Yes, limiting the amount of magic is certainly a way, so long as the limited magic isn’t the end of the book that resolves the problems. I hope you keep coming by, and I hope I continue to keep you interested.


  4. A well thought out post, I try to do this with ‘advanced scientific tech’ for my science fiction. Basically the same as magic with shiny tinfoil clothes!! As for the foreshadowing, I tend to do this on the second pass so I know it all works.

    Liked by 1 person

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