Dénouement & Deus Ex Machina — A-to-Z Blog Challenge, Literary Terms

DWe’re already on D. So far in our journey of literary terms, we’ve had Anticlimax, bestiary, and conflict. Now we add to that with Dénouement and Deus Ex Machina. These are important words to know to help any writer with making a good story.

As in all my other posts, I will define them and link them together at the end. Please a post and tell me what you think. I love hearing from you.


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Seems like a misspelling of the word Document. But it is fun to say, Day New Maw. Now in our last article with catastrophe, we did touch on this a little bit, but I plan to go into much more detail on it.

Dénouement is French, meaning unknotting or unwinding. It comes at the end of a story, after the end of the conflict, generally regarded as the last scene of the story. Often times the author wants to close this scene out as fast as possible, and generally is the shortest element in the book.

But what is it? In simplistic term, it is what happens after the resolution of the story. Once the character has achieve what they needed, it is the little bit of story remaining, which also can be indication that there is still more story to tell, as in the case of a sequel.

A good example of this is Back to the Future. Marty had three basic goals: Get his parents together, get to the present time, and prevent Doc’s death. He is able to complete all three by the end of the film, getting to the present and finding that Doc had read his letter. The movie could have ended with taking him home. Any element after this was the dénouement, which of course led us to the sequel.


Dénouement is not just for leading into a sequel. As the French terms, it is also a way of releasing stress. In the story during the rising action, we were building up tension and anxiety, so when the climax came, were were glued to the story wanting everything coming together. And that is a lot for a person to take, so rather than saying happily ever after, we show a glimpse of what that is. We had had a release to tell us everything was going to be all right. Showing us, not telling us.

In the example of Back to the Future, the movie could have ended with Marty kissing Jennifer, and that would have been a perfect ending, if the goal wasn’t to open for a sequel.

Deus Ex Machina

This is more than just a literary term, it is a plot device. It is also a trope, meaning it is been way overdone. But if you ask people what is it, they generally fail to answer it. Many people see it as a bad ending, or lazy writing.

The term originates in Greek plays and literally means God from the Machine. In Greek plays, it occurred when an actor was lowered on to the stage from a crane, playing the part as a God and resolve all the problems. What this represents is that despite the trial and tribulations of our characters, the resolution to the conflict does not come from their actions, but an outside one.

A good example of this is the Dodgeball movie. I love this film, however, the characters didn’t resolve their own problem. Had Peter not sold the gym to Goodman, then when they won, they would have resolved their own problem. In fact, when Peter sold his gym, they technically lost the conflict. Now yes, he did use the money he got from White to bet on the team and they won; it wasn’t a direct action from the characters that resolved their issue. I’m sure you’ll disagree with me, but watch the movie again and see what it says on the chest. I’ll save you the trouble:


This device is often used when an author has put themselves in a corner and the characters are unable to resolve their own issue. If your recall from my last post I used the term eucatastrophe from J.R.R. Tolkien; some have argued that it is another term for Deus Ex Machina, in the example of the Eagles flying in and rescuing Sam and Frodo. I’ll let you make up your own mind on that one.

In short, this is not a device you want to use. It makes your work derisive to be honest. It is rare you can find a way to make it work for you, and Dodgeball is one of the few things I’ve seen to make it work and still be enjoyable. It’s an easy way out and if you find you have to use it, I would recommend to change your story and find a way that doesn’t require you to use it, lest it could affect your sales.

Dénouement & Deus Ex Machina

The connection to draw from here is the end of the story. While the Dénouement is the end of the story, you can end the story with the Deus Ex Machina. However, both are not necessary for a story. Deus Ex Machina is something you really don’t want to do and Dénouement is something you don’t have to have to make a story complete.

The use of Dénouement is a call out to your readers to say, “Here’s a little bit extra just to let you know things are all right.” or even “Hey, there’s the possibility that you could see these characters again.” While never a requirement to do, I do recommend having one, even if it is a page long.

Deus Ex Machina, unless you are trying to make a specific point with it, I would suggest you don’t attempt it. In the Dodgeball movie, the use of it showed us Peter’s character. That if he never set goals for himself, he could never be disappointed, and rather than face the possibility of humiliation he ran away. Thanks to Lance Armstrong, he was convinced to go back and used his bribe to either resolve the situation, or to lose it; perhaps as a way of punishing himself. In this case, it was used as a means of characterization right up until the end, which was then followed by a Dénouement.


Once again, unless you have a very specific use of it, avoid it at all costs, because you then need to answer why did you use it and why could it not end in any other way…what do our characters learn here?

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  1. “Dénouement is something you don’t have to have to make a story complete.”

    I respectfully disagree. I love me a good dénouement. Stories that lack one irk me and leave me feeling cheated. I will forever remember the Dragon Age expansion for this reason (and not in a good way–don’t know if you play computer games). Here’s how it went: my character stabbed the Big Bad Boss in the face and then the credits rolled. Sure, they added some text of “here’s what happened to everyone” afterwards, but that doesn’t cut it. That’s telling, not showing.

    Anyway… cool about the Dodgeball deus ex machina. I love that movie and have seen it a few times, but I never noticed that on the chest! 🙂

  2. Sonia Lal says:

    I’ve thought of the deus ex machine as the god ending where the characters get the perfect ending that comes out of left field. It’s usually, like WTH just happened? The characters act out of character or something like that

    • mad_cat says:

      It can be that, but it is generally regarded as a solution to a problem is given that was not done by the characters. An outside force saving the day, though not always a perfect ending. Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park at the end coming and saving the humans. I’d hardly call that a perfect ending, but definitely Deus Ex.

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