If you have never heard the term Alien Space Bats, join the club. I found it while searching for an illustration for this post, originally titled deus ex machina. Alien Space Bats was a better title, so I changed it. ASB refers to impossible points of divergence in alternate history stories, as in, “It would take alien space bats intervening to make this story fly.” In short, it is a funnier way of saying deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina translates roughly as the God in the Machine, referring to an event in a Greek play wherein a God is literally lowered onto the stage to explain why everything happened as it did. It is all about plausibility and timing.
If, as a writer, you drag something into the story at the last minute to explain what has been going on, you are likely to be subject to ridicule, and deus ex machina is the phrase critics will use as a club to beat you with.
I ran into a variation of this back in the Precambrian, when I was in grad school. The class was on Indian history and culture. That is South Asian Indian, not Native American. We read a story in which the hero suffered terrible tribulations and at the very end it was revealed that he had done something bad in a previous life, and that was why all these things had happened to him.
My fellow students cried deus ex machina. I disagreed. If you were a Hindu, practicing or not, this story would have sounded reasonable. The bad things that happen to Hindus in this life are all explicable; they are all because they did something wrong in a past life and there is no point in moaning about it. As in life, so in literature.
It’s actually quite Christian, in a twisted sort of way. Fundamentalists don’t look to something individuals have personally done wrong, but to original sin to tell us why the bad things happen to good people.
Nowadays, New Age thinkers (?) have stood this on its head. You hear it everywhere, “Everything happens for a reason,” by which they mean that good will come from every apparent tragedy. It is undoubtedly the least intellectually valid cliché of the twenty-first century — but that’s a whole different sermon.
Now if you are or want to be a writer — and why would you be this far into this post if that weren’t true — you are the God and your computer is the machine. So ask yourself, why do bad things happen to your characters?
Metaphysically, you may be working out some personal trauma. Practically, you can’t have a plot without tension. But when it comes right down to it, neither of these is of any interest to your reader.
Your reader takes your story and temporarily treats it as real. When he reaches the point that he can’t do that any longer, he closes the book and you’re through.
So the question is, in your story, why do these things happen to your hero? In a thriller, it may be easy. His (or her) wife, husband, daughter, boss, company, governmental agency, or law firm has done something wrong and that is the reason your hero is on the run. Motivation is set from the get-go and the thriller formula becomes a matter of clever events to carry him/her through her/his tribulations.
If your hero has brought the troubles on himself, things get a little more interesting. If he/she has complicating factors and cross-motivations, even better, but you have to dribble all this out as you go along. You can’t do it as an info dump at the beginning and you can’t do it as a cheaters dump at the end. And in our world, a cheaters dump is a more honest word for deus ex machina.
You might get away with it in ancient Greece, but not in America today. Nor — recognizing that half the people reading this post are not from the USA and a fourth of them are from India — in any place where western style literature is the norm.
This is the game we have all agreed to play, so there is no point in whining about the rules.
If you have a reason for the things that happen in your story, but you don’t give hints along the way — if you save it all up for that dramatic reveal and dump it all on your reader at the very end, you’re on your own. I can’t help you.