Tony Stark lies dying on the floor of his workshop. He is sweating, pale, and motionless, propped up against a bench. The arc reactor that is normally in his chest, keeping him alive, is missing. The audience can’t figure out how he’s going to get out of this one. He’s completely alone, he’s out of options. Is this where Tony Stark dies? In the very first film of the then non-existent Marvel Cinematic Universe? Then suddenly a robotic arm swoops in from left of frame, handing him a spare arc reactor that he was going to throw away, but Pepper Potts kept and gave to him as a humorous memento. And the audience goes “Ah! Of course!” It’s surprising, relieving, and as a storytelling moment, it completely works.
Luke Skywalker is hurtling down the Death Star trench, about to fire the torpedoes that could destroy the massive war machine, saving the Rebellion and striking a major blow against The Empire. But behind him Darth Vader lines him up in his TIE Fighter, and is about to press down on the trigger that will destroy Luke, and guarantee the destruction of the Rebellion. It seems like Luke is doomed, that right on the cusp of victory and becoming the hero he is destined to be, he will die. Then suddenly, flying in from out of the sun comes the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo blows away Vader’s TIE Fighter escort, and sends Vader spinning into space, clearing Luke to take his shot.
Kevin McCallister is pinned against a wall by two criminals, whom he has spent the last half hour torturing through a series of traps in his home. But now he’s not in his home, he’s in a house across the street. He has no more traps, no more ideas, and he’s completely alone. Then suddenly a large snow shovel swings down upon the criminals knocking them out. Old Man Marley steps in, picks Kevin up, and takes him home safe.
Deus ex machina is a term used frequently in screenwriting. It’s a latin term that means “God from the machine.” The term has it’s roots in classic Greek tragedies, where in the climactic moment, when it seems all is lost, a god would be wheeled in (often using a machine) and would save the day and fix everything. And these days it’s used to refer to a surprise salvation or turn around in a story that feels unearned. A surprise that is never set up, not rooted at all in character, and feels like a cheat or a betrayal of the audience’s trust. At it’s least offensive, it just leaves the audience feeling a bit hollow and empty, just not quite satisfied. At it’s worst it will leave the audience feeling angry. We have expectations of how stories behave, and there are principals for writing satisfying stories. And one is that victories need to feel earned. And that surprise rescues need to be set up in a subtle way, so that in hindsight we say “Of course!” but the storytellers sleight of hand kept you from realising until afterwards. These opening three story moments are perfect examples of not deus ex machina, but of it being done right, all in different ways. So let’s talk about the set ups that made these moments work.
In almost every major workshop scene leading up to the climactic moment, Tony Stark has a humorous “master and his bumbling servant” relationship with a particular robotic arm assistant. The jokes are great, and set up perfectly both Tony Stark’s arrogant dead pan wit, and also his genius by the fact that he has a somewhat sentient robotic arm following his orders (and raises the question of why he would program it to be so inept…). But because these are lighthearted passing moments, because the robotic arm is not once used in a critical plot point until he saves Tony, we never expect it to be his saviour. It is absolutely set up, but the filmmakers did it subtly. Through repetition the robotic arm is implanted in the audience’s minds, but we never give it more attention than the moment it’s in. So when it swoops in, it’s not a cheat, it’s not a betrayal. It’s a surprise, it’s an “Oh yeah the arm!” moment. And it’s also another funny moment to diffuse an incredibly tense scene. The arm finally gets it right. It’s been getting it wrong all movie, and in the moment when it’s most needed, it finally does the right thing. Tony Stark is saved by the piece of technology he has been smack talking all movie. Brilliant. And it reveals one of the keys for setting up a surprise rescue or salvation moment well. Set up the character/technology/escape in multiple scenes, but always treat it up to that moment in a light-hearted way. Never use it in a plot-turning moment. It’s just a passing joke. And it will register in the audience’s minds, but they won’t place it in the “this is important, remember this” box. And so it’s perfectly set up to be the turning point moment that they never saw coming, but completely works. The moment would 100% not work at all without any of the set up. If the robot arm had just been in the background of all the scenes, never mentioned and never interacting with Tony, while yes logically the moment would make sense, as a piece of satisfying storytelling it really wouldn’t work. The pieces need to be there in a way that, in the moment of surprise, the audience can instantly put it together for themselves and have their own “Of course! How did I not see that?” moment.
Han Solo saving Luke Skywalker is another great example, because it absolutely works but is set up in a completely different way. There is no previous scene of Han swooping in and saving the day at the last moment, whether light-hearted or serious. It’s something far more subtle that sets it up. Up until that point Han has been adamant that he’s out for his own interests. He has debts he needs to pay, and he’ll help you out, but as long as he’s getting paid. So when he takes his reward and leaves, turning his back on his new friends and leaving in their greatest moment of need, it’s exactly in line with the person he claims to be. But that’s just it, the person he CLAIMS to be. I can’t put my finger on whether it’s just because it’s Harrison Ford, or subtleties in the writing and performance, but we don’t believe for a second he’s really that man. And we don’t entirely believe that he completely believes it about himself either. He always seems like he’s trying to convince himself as well as everyone else. This is part of what makes him such a compelling and interesting character. So when he leaves, we’re disappointed because deep down we don’t believe he really is that guy. We hope he’ll be the man we know he really is. So when he swoops in out of the sun and saves the day, it one hundred percent works because we always believed on some level that he would. It was set up in character, and it was so subtle, and the stakes and the drama so large after he’s walked away, that we completely forget about him. And when he saves the day it’s not just satisfying because of the victory that follows, but because it’s him finally becoming the hero we always believed he was. We were just waiting for him to believe it himself.
In Home Alone, Old Man Marley saving the day works for another whole set of reasons again. He’s first set up as the local legend, a terrifying man whose a murderer, a story told amongst the neighbourhood kids to scare each other. And for those aware of story mechanics this is the least subtle example, because the plot grinds to a halt to major on this man and the stories around him, then carries on without mentioning him again for a long time. But it establishes that when it snows he walks the streets salting the sidewalks. And he’s out there enough for people to talk about him. This is important information for his surprise rescue moment to work. The next time we see him, he’s approaching Kevin whose alone in church on the eve of his great battle. Kevin is terrified, but soon discovers the stories aren’t true. That he’s actually a kind old man. And we have our classic Home Alone “Kevin talks about the lesson he just learned” moment. But this is what makes the surprise rescue work. We think that’s it. We think Old Man Marley exists as a character to bring home the major theme of the film, that you need to forgive your family and let nothing get between you. And once Kevin learns his lesson about his family, and Old Man Marley learns a lesson from Kevin, we think that’s it. Message delivered, the character has served his purpose. And so once again we forget about him, and his rescue is a complete surprise. But it doesn’t feel like a cheat and a betrayal. Because once again he’s a character we were aware of the whole time. We know he’s out on the sidewalks in the neighbourhood when it snows, and we also know it’s been snowing. We just didn’t have him in the “he could save the day” box in our minds. He was in the “that’s the moral of the story” box. (By the way, Home Alone 2 repeats this EXACT set up and pay off, almost beat for beat). But it also resonates on a deeper level because it brings his character his own little redemption story: he’s set up as a murderer, but we discover he’s a saviour. It’s a surprise, it’s unexpected, but again, it completely works. And it on some level also feels earned, because Kevin did what few have done and engaged with him, getting to know who he really was. So it feels completely right that he should be the one he receives his aid.
Let’s finish this up with an example of a film doesn’t really get this moment right. It’s not the worst example of deus ex machina around, for reasons that will be explained, but it’s still an ending that feels like a complete disappointment to the audience. And it pains me to say this because I love him so damn much, but it’s a Spielberg film. It’s War Of The Worlds. In a film full of huge, dramatic, action filled set pieces of aliens invading earth and absolutely wreaking havoc, you’d expect that whatever the victory is that defeats them needs to be equally massive. Or feel incredibly earned, and come at great cost and sacrifice. But what is it that defeats the unstoppable alien invaders? They just catch colds. And die. That’s it. That my good friends, is how you leave the audience with a very hollow feeling in their chest. But it’s not the worst example, because the reasons for that ending sit in the subtext for what the entire story is actually about. The original novel of War Of The Worlds is actually one giant criticism of colonialism. The aliens invading earth in their giant war machines, feeding on the resources and the people, and eventually failing because they just fundamentally don’t belong here and have not evolved to suit our planet, is a giant finger pointed at European invaders and colonists. When you know this, wow, what a powerful, subversive ending and story. But I’m afraid that subtlety was lost on 90% of the audience, so it just fell completely flat. There was no set up, it didn’t feel earned, it wasn’t rooted in character, so it didn’t work even though it is absolutely true to the metaphorical intent and heart of the story. (Well actually, it is kind of set up once. Ray Ferrier’s daughter Rachel gets a splinter and tells her dad not to touch it, that it’s a foreign object so her body will just push it out. Get it? The aliens are the splinter, her finger the earth. That’s it. I’m normally a fan of subtlety, but that’s a little too subtle).
These kind of surprise endings are all over the place, and the great majority of them really do work. So have a think about the stories you know that use this kind of set up and pay off. Pay attention to how it’s set up. What did they do that made you forget about the rescue that was always there? What made it work? What are the stories where it didn’t work? (If you can think of any, mention them in the comments, I would love to chat with you about them.) Then take those lessons and apply them to your own storytelling, because these kind of surprise moments are some of the most delicious moments for an audience. They are a joy to experience, and are just as much a joy to set up. And that’s one of the big reasons why we keep doing this thing, both telling and enjoying stories. For the joy of the experience. To be along with the hero racking your brain trying to find a way out, and finding you’ve got nothing. Feeling the tension, the suspense. And then the sudden rush of joy and relief, the sudden moment of putting all the pieces together, the sheer child-like delight of that moment. It’s a beautiful thing. It takes us back to when we were little and stories were new, and the twists and turns that we find so tired and worn out now were so fresh and thrilling.
In a great surprise rescue, the thing that saves the day is something you thought small and insignificant. And I genuinely believe that giving audiences that small, seemingly insignificant moment of child-like delight again could turn out to be the rescue someone needs. Every experience of joy and delight no matter how small reminds us that life is still worth living. It gives that little bit more hope that while things may seem dark and hopeless right now, our story may still have some good surprises in it yet.
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