If there’s one Latin phrase an author is likely to know, it’s the dreaded Deus Ex Machina, or ‘god from the machine.’ (Although let’s face it, writers are more likely to know Latin than anyone short of a Latin professor.) If you’re someone who hasn’t heard this phrase before, never fear – you’ve probably seen it executed more than once in storytelling. Wikipedia describes it as,
‘A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.’
My favorite example (imagine me saying ‘favorite’ with gritted teeth and a too-big smile) is in Allegiant, the last movie in the Divergent trilogy-turned-quartet-turned-who-cares. In this trainwreck of a movie, a gas is being released into the city which will wipe the memories of every citizen. It’s already begun to flood the city! But at the last minute, Tris…shoots a pipe. A pipe through which the gas is flowing. And instead of just rerouting a tiny bit of the gas into Trish’s face, shooting the pipe…sucks the gas back in? Amazing! And not only that, but those who had already breathed in the amnesiac are now fine! A miracle!
We would call this pipe the very worst (or best?) example of a Deus Ex Machina – a random, last-minute plot device that Saves the Day – and lets down viewers everywhere, who expected maybe some logic. Or an actual point to the now-ruined story. Or something. This is a cardinal writing sin, and every writer worth their salt knows to avoid it.
However, there is a similar literary sin which many of the same people who studiously avoid a Deus Ex Machina nonetheless fall into, and that is positive coincidence.
Character A is in the office of an evil dentist, strapped to a chair. The dentist is preparing to forcibly remove Character A’s teeth without an anesthetic – but hold up! Character B, who happens to be Character A’s best friend, and is also an ex-Navy Seal, happens to be there for a dentist appointment on the very same day! Character B saves Character A. Wasn’t that lucky?
This is positive coincidence. Think of it as the Deus Ex Machina‘s annoying little brothers. I say brothers because I’ve read many books where positive coincidences abound, whereas most stories can only carry one Deus Ex Machina.
MIRRIAM, WHAT’S WRONG WITH COINCIDENCE?
Nothing! Unless it’s a positive coincidence. Why? It’s lazy. That’s why. Happy accidents might happen every now and then in real life, but you don’t want them in your book. It lessens the tension. It’s anticlimactic. It’s boring. Character A needs to figure out a way to escape the evil dentist by his or herself – OR MAYBE, the evil dentist succeeds and takes the teeth anyway. Now Character A is a) in pain and b) has to live without their teeth. It’s a lot more interesting than the last-minute save.
Negative coincidences, on the other hand…well, those are the exact opposite. The Big Bad showing up at the facility where the Good Guys are trying to rescue someone? GOOD. Because it’s bad. A prison handyman noticing a problem with a pipe and fixing it, just in time to block the prisoners from escaping? PERFECT. Because it’s bad.
I love a good negative coincidence. Readers love negative coincidences, because when something bad happens on top of the bad thing already happening, it doubles the tension, the excitement, and the nail-biting.
So remember: Positive is bad, negative is good. Now get out there and create some tense situations.