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Cheat Endings As Bad As Deus Ex Machina

Thursday, November 29th, 2018 | Posted by M Harold Page

Deus... Ex Machina...!

We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending

Deus Ex Machina endings are so despised that people still use the Roman term from thousands of years ago, itself a translation from the older Greek, “God Out of the Machine”.

For those who’ve just tuned in to plot geekery and tropes: Imagine a Greek play, everybody in masks under a Mediterranean blue sky. The Furies are rejoicing, the hero is trapped by his enemies, the dilemmas are unsolvable and — WHOOSH! — a crane or a trapdoor-elevator — yes, a machine — literally plonks Apollo onto the stage and He — boringly — fixes everything.

These days, the Deus Ex Machin need not be a god — it can be the king, an airstrike, friendly aliens, whatever. We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending: unearned victory or salvation is boring, and dodges the questions raised by the story.

However, Deus Ex Machina is not the only cheat ending. It has mutant cousins that often get a free pass because they ramp up the drama. Even so, they suck the life from stories by making them less rich.

Let’s call the first, “Boss out of the Box” and take Wonder Woman as an example (not because it’s a bad movie, but because we’ve all watched it). Spoilers after the cut.

Wonder Woman poster-small

Great movie, but Boss out of a Box ending

So, Wonder Woman and “Boss in a Box.”

She  tags Ludendorf as the God Ares in Disguise and goes on a heroic quest to take him out. Finally, she defeats him in an epic duel, only to find — twist! — she’s buffied a mere mortal and the war continues.

If only the movie had stopped there! It would have been perfect: Humans are flawed, human problems are complex,  but humans are worth fighting for.

But no.

The filmmakers had to out another character as Ares, reducing the plot to Where’s Wally? (But With More Body Count). She has her second boss fight and slays the god. The war stops, but we know that wars in general continue (and continued after Armistice), so it’s not clear what threat she averted.

As my son “Kurtzhau”, then 14, put it:

The ending doesn’t belong. What does she learn? There’s no Ares and that makes sense, that there is and it doesn’t. The whole point of the movie is that humans are ****ed up but she’ll fight for them anyway. The critics (he means YouTubers — well he is 14) say the director wanted one thing but the studio just made them bolt on a boss fight.

So the full definition is…

“Boss out of a Box”: The story reaches a conclusion, but without enough pyrotechnics. Rather than go back and tweak to set up an ending that goes up to 11, the writers and/or filmmakers bolt on a twist that invalidates the story so far, but delivers a nice big battle at the end. E.g., the fight at the end of Sixth Sense where the boy turns out to be Satan, and Bruce Willis has to vanquish him in order to return to his own dimension and get his wife back.

There’s another one I’ll call, “Conscience in a Crate.”

Solo-Star-Wars-3-small

Loved everything about this movie except the Conscience in a Crate ending

I enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story right up until the end when (spoiler) one faction turned out to be a player in the Empire vs the Rebellion struggle. Thematically — did I just type that? — the main story arc ended when Han shot first, gunned down his mentor and flew off to be a cynical but engagingly cocky smuggler in need of a princess to redeem him.

But no, Disney couldn’t bring themselves to give us the genre-appropriate Space Noir ending. Instead, Conscience in a Crate arrives special delivery, and Han has to give up the McGuffin. A character who made that decision in his youth ought to appear in New Hope as a Rebellion operative.

“Conscience in a Crate”: The protagonist attains their morally dubious objectives, but the writers and/or filmmakers get cold feet. Rather than accept that this was the whole point of the story, or go back to set up the change of heart, they conjure up a chance for the protagonist to behave selflessly and railroad him or her into taking it. E.g., that moment at the end of The Italian Job where Michael Caine donates all the money to an orphanage.

These are all cinematic sins and scream too-many-cooks. I don’t think many authors are guilty of such cheat endings. However, there is one that seems to infect prose Space Opera in particular. I’m going to call it, “Apocalypse in the Mail,” and it’s been on my mind since I returned to writing my Eternal Dome series.

aliens

Cryptic Aliens

Without naming names, the story usually goes thus: Protagonists encounter Intriguing Cryptic Alien Mystery. They wrestle with the mystery, simultaneously struggling with human antagonists. Everything comes to a climax. Whether or not they were supposed to be extinct, the Cryptic Aliens manifest and do a Raiders of the Lost Ark. The protagonists naturally survive, but their jubilation is tempered by the revelation that a Great Doom is Coming. The Cryptic Aliens are working to protect or evacuate sentient life, which explains their, um, crypticity?

M Harold Page The Wreck of the Marissa (Eternal Dome of the Unknowable 1)

Sooner or later Lucky Jim is going to shoot or swive his way to the mysterious Dome. What then?

The most obvious problem with this is that it’s so common as to be more trope than cliche. I don’t think the next one is going to surprise, let alone shock, me. Like finding a gun fight in a Western.

However, even as a one-off, there are other problems.

Really, “Because the Apocalypse is in the Mail” is just not a very interesting answer to, “Why do you aliens do all this cryptic ****?”

Just as there are only three types of tyrants,  there are a limited variety of Galactic-scale apocalypses (perhaps: die fast, die slow, mutate, become hosts, become slaves) and possible responses (fight, flight, pre-emptive self-annihilation, resignation, hibernation). There’s very little possibility of any threatened doom eliciting delighted horror.

Worse, it’s a very non-alien answer. The Cryptic Aliens turn out to be doing just what we’d do if we had the information and technology; they are not really so alien after all. The effect is about the same as backpacking to Chiang Mai and only getting as far as the local Irish theme bar.

“Apocalypse in the Mail”: We get to the big reveal of the motives of the cryptic aliens,  but author can’t think of anything suitably alien. Instead, they opt for a generic existential threat that explains everything. E.g., the conclusion of Babylon 5 where the Shadows reveal that they were preparing humanity to resist the Daleks.

This particular cheat ending weighs heavily on my mind as I return to my series The Eternal Dome of the UnknowableSooner or later, Lucky Jim is going to shoot and swive his way to the mysterious Dome. What then? It had better live up to the hype…


M Harold Page is the Scottish author of  The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure  yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and  Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic(Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)

3 Comments »

  1. Don’t forget “Nuke the Fridge”!

    “I’m going to Lollapalooza!”
    “Here we go again!”

    IMO per my Anti Thud and Blunder (Good Writer + Good Story = Gnorts the Barbarian can use a 50lb Wet Noodle if he wishes) argument its not the particular plot themes used but how they are used and if they are a good story overall or not.

    We do go through periods where some things are over-used. For instance “The Hero’s Journey” got over-used with John Campbell’s books and college professors almost worshiping him, it going on to their students. Lucas did it best, but there was a lot of hack work when they cut the long hair and got jobs and had to type or write or script or draw regular stories for a shrinking media. IMO if a story is mainly Heroe’s Journey it’s OK if someone has a story they have to tell using it, but should read up on current ones and check on the stuff popular to make sure they don’t accidentally sound like a hack just trying to drag Harry Potter’s coat-tails for example.

    To make matters worse the mainstream media both relies upon and builds up expectations of such cliches for comfort. Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (the name itself an unwanted compromise) was diminished at the box office due to the ‘ending’ so to speak being not modern Disneyfied fairyland… “Took my GF to it, she went home crying, none for me tonight, one star!” – online review I remember…

    Years back I did a semi regular online comic – fantasy based stuff – and I left for the weekend after uploading one where the main character, to say anti-hero is to under-state, looked like he was going to have relations with a female character through a type of extortion. Well came back after a weekend had HUNDEREDS of letters in my email… All “You’d better not!”, “Please don’t let him…” etc. Far more than I’d ever got. Shook my head and uploaded the strips already done where no he didn’t get any that way, got clobbered big time for it, etc…

    Thing is, I never had main characters do anything like that. Vile world they lived in but they didn’t rape, they charmed or paid for it like anyone else, even the not too moral or heroic ones. But my stories were not “I hope this gets published just like…current popular thing” – the new WWW I was doing it to express myself. But since I wrote so non-standard they weren’t subtly assured nothing bad would happen to the other character and it really got their goat.

    A novel I’ll start on after I finish my current one involves a fairy-tale character. IMO if it ever got made into a movie and I was able to call the shots – ideally budget of “Van Helsing” and it’d look quite similar with “Bloodborne” style extra weird horror mixed in – the audience would be almost rioting due to my style… I think this is why too many films are butchered or forced into cliches. Like Deadpool 2 having a “Fridged Girlfriend” even though mainstream comics has to avoid that trope. BUT – I am planning to have an ending that might be akin to “God in the Machine”. I’m going to use it but to make sure it is justified – AND – to distract from it after I bring it up in the beginning so its not expected even though almost announced and quite deserved from anyone checking out the story.

    I say really “The story is king” – need to focus on making it overall a good story. Beware over-used current cliches, but even these can be done right if handled properly – goes on the edge of or into “Style over substance” – which is bad if done hack-like but excellent if done for its own sake – “Vampire Hunter D” IMO is the best.

    One trope I’d like to see is “The Tower of the Elephant” from REH’s tale. He kept his stories short and his prose laconic but made such a wonderful world. Nowadays I see ‘trilogies’ brick thick with paper thin plots and it looks like much of the maps and characters were generated with free online RPG generator things. Not kidding, use a search engine. In abstract that’d be cool, random world but somehow make a story for it – but it might be only entertainment if the story told is nothing but the surface. But Tower of the Elephant did far more, it told lots about that world without having a huge history, glossary, dictionary of names and places as if the brick thick novels in the ‘trilogy’ weren’t bloated enough. It, from the perspective of an outsider, told the story background far better than any long text could have ever done by telling just enough and getting the audience to want more.

    IMO the “Simillarion” stuff, the publishing tons of sketches and scripts and finishing stories should be for AFTER an author dies – if popular- so publishers and family licking the coffin clean can find something they can use to give some solace to his fans. I’m A-OK with Mark Bode doing that, not sure about fifth hand publisher property auctions though.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - November 29, 2018 11:06 pm

  2. Ah but if you set up your Deus Ex Machina ending, then it’s not a Deus Ex Machine ending.

    Like you, I don’t really care if something is a cliche or not, as long as the story is good. However, what this article is about is *structural* components that spoil a story. The King popping up to save the day might be a cliche, but what makes it bad is it ducks resolving the story.

    I do take issue with your 50lb wet noodle because writers ought to take seriously the implications of the physical aspects of their story.

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 30, 2018 7:39 am

  3. >>I do take issue with your 50lb wet noodle because writers ought to take seriously the implications of the physical aspects of their story.

    I actually put a lot of effort researching for a story, having to stop to avoid over-working things. Pretty hard sometimes – for instance set a story in the 1750s – you get LOTS of stuff for decades later, but very little for that time. Even doing stories set in Antedilluvian times to try to give myself Robert E Howard’s freedom for a Sword and Sorcery base I re-read the occult, hidden history, etc. that helped inspire it.

    The Wet Noodle joke is just how while important research is also NOT important. Duality. Important lest a mediocre story be totally condemned to obscurity or perhaps a good or excellent story diminished. But then too much research takes too much time and limits – well the “Hard Sci-Fi vs Soft Scifi” is kind of a product of this. Today’s Hard Sci-Fi is tomorrow’s “Steampunk” – and classic Wells vs Verne, the former was mocked for just making things up – well he predicted Netflix essentially – stuff Verne never would have dreamed of or dared write about.

    I am for reasonable research, just to at least avoid Color TVs in WW2 and stuff. But – well I’ve noticed how good stories can write themselves. The stuff I am writing that I researched – 90% what I would have written if done in a dark room, no internet, no references, at least. I don’t regret doing the research, even came up with some scenes that I’ll wait to pounce like a Jungle Cannibal of Africa for when someone goes “You just put that in … coz hate … nothing like that happened…!” and it was well documented…!

    The latter is another “Rule” I’ll save for my persona/for fans work in a decade maybe “The Secret Languages of the Djinn” – my “The Castle of the Otter” – how reality can often jump over and beyond anything we’d dare write in fiction.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - December 1, 2018 2:53 am


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