I’m sure you’ve all heard the term Deus Ex Machina and are familiar with why it’s generally a problem- and I’ve discussed why it’s a problem concerning the defeat of villains, even if not in those direct terms.
You’ve probably never heard of Diablos Ex Machina because it’s a term my husband made up. However, after watching a few animes and becoming increasingly frustrated with The Most Terrible Things cropping up out of nowhere for the sake of creating conflict and whatnot, he coined the term.
One of the primary examples of this was from an interesting series called Romeo X Juliet. It is, in fact, anime Romeo and Juliet. Kind of. I mean, the show had two noble families, one Capulet, one Montague, at odds with each other, and they had heir children, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fell in love in a place called Neo Verona. Beyond that, the story and charaters baaaasically had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s play, starting with the fact that the very beginning, Montague and minions burst into Capulet’s home and slaughtered literally everyone except two year old Juliet and a few retainers who helped her escape and raised her. From there, you have the Red Whirlwind, a vigilante whose secret identity is the young boy Odin, whose secret identity is none other than Juliet, Mysterious Ninja Tybalt, Romeo is a genuinely cool guy not ruled by his penis, and there’s also a really stupid Yggdrasil-style tree that is the cause of the Diablos Ex Machina. Escalus, the stupid tree, is what keeps Neo Verona floating. Did I mention that Neo Verona is a sky island? It’s a sky island. Yeah this version is a very loose interpretation of the play with all sorts of neat stuff!
Anyway after enjoying the far better development of Juliet, Romeo, and their romance, you get to the point where they’re torn apart for pretty literally no good reason and it’s got nothing to do with the Montague thing. See, the whole time, the lady who tends Escalus (her name is Ophelia) keeps telling Montague that Escalus is dying because he doesn’t have love, and Escalus needs love to survive. And so Tyler and I draw the conclusion that obvs Romeo and Juliet’s love will heal Escalus – and there is a ton of other reasons why we drew that conclusion because it made sense. And then, as they’re gearing up for the final battle against Montague…
…it comes up that no, no, what Escalus wants is a female Capulet. See you gotta sacrifice a Capulet maiden to Escalus every now and then for it to be happy or it dies and the city crashes to the ground. So when the battle comes up and Montague is slain, Juliet runs off to go sacrifice herself and Romeo runs after and is like omg noooooo and then blah blah and he changes Juliet’s mind but then Ophelia is like Nope! and forces her to do the tree thing and then Romeo tries to get Juliet back and gets stabbed by a wooden stake of Ophelia who is also turning into a tree and then Juliet escapes Escalus but finds Romeo is kind of super impaled and so she does the tree thing anyway sorta and flies the continent to the ocean below and turns into a tree with Romeo.
This whole thing was highly upsetting to Tyler and I. Especially because I have a sixth sense for when the female lead is going to turn into a tree at the end of the story – no, seriously, we read whichever Shanera book it was where that happens and I called it at the very beginning of their quest – and while it took a little while longer than it normally would for me to sense this was gonna happen to Juliet (Because it had no setup whatsoever), I ignored it hardcore because it would have been really stupid for her to turn into a tree (Because there was no setup whatsoever). This was because there was no setup for it at all.
When it came up and it was pretty clear that the anime was like la la everything is working out so nicely oh crap this story was supposed to be a tragedy uhhh quick make Escalus eat Juliet! I mean, even if it had been planned from the beginning, that’s not how it was executed. And the bottom line is Tyler and I felt completely cheated.
And that’s the problem with Diablos Ex Machina – well, the same problem with anything in your machine. It’s cheap and it makes your audience feel cheated. Whether it’s BAM! Saved! or BAM! Everything is ruined for no reason! it’s a problem.
Sometimes life is unpredictable and bad things happen for no reason. But as random as life seems, it’s not actually truly random and when bad things happen for no reason, there’s still a reason it happened; that’s two different definitions of reason, one meaning cause, one meaning motivation. Many bad things don’t have motivation but do have cause. Take natural disasters – that’s a bad thing that happens to good people for no reason, which is to say those people did absolutely nothing to deserve the devestation. Except they did by living on this planet, which has a crust that’s a bunch of giant rocks floating on churning magma that sometimes causes earthquakes and weather patterns that include incredible winds and bad storms that carry hurricanes over cities or tornados across the land. A big forest fire has no motivation for burning down someone’s home, but there is a cause for it, such as the fact that they were living in a flammable home next to a flamable forest and something like lightning started a fire.
There’s also man-made disasters, like shootings. While people say “no one could have predicted this,” that’s not even remotely true.
The fellow who wrote this book, his job is literally to predict disasters like shootings, and they are 100% possible to predict. Maybe there’s no particular reason that crazy gun terrorist shot, specifically, the random innocent people he did, but there is a reason he went out and shot random people.
The problem with Diablos Ex Machina is that in writing, we can go for the shock factor of Suddenly! Bad thing! but a well-crafted story will have set it up, even if just in a sneaky way. Getting that Suddenly! Bad thing! just right is great since that’s what makes your readers scream and throw the book across the room. But the thing is, for that to be the good kind of chucking the book and not the bad kind where the reader is just angry with you, the writer, and they don’t pick it back up, you need to make sure you know the reason behind everything and you’re writing accordingly. If Escalus wanted a Capulet, whether or not Montague had any love didn’t really matter, did it? What Ophellia should have been saying was that Montague doomed the tree by spilling the blood it craved, or something like that. Is that a dead giveaway? Doesn’t have to be with careful wording.
There are times when Bad Thing! coming out from left field is appropriate, but that usually involves introducing an entirely new element, not dramatically changing an existing one without preamble. Either way, you’ve got to take care that you’re not doing things just because you’re trying to get the story to be a certain way, without making sure the story actually works the way you’re bending it. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel cheated.
Edit: apparently TV tropes disagrees with the idea that Tyler made up the term. They have a page on Diabolos Ex Machina. Who knew? (Not me, apparently.)