J. R. R. Tolkien coined an unusual term: eucatastrophe. Literally, it means “good catastrophe,” and by it he meant a sudden turn of events that changes disaster into victory.
The classic example of the technique is Tolkien’s own resolution to the primary conflict in The Lord of the Rings. Against all odds, Frodo carries Sauron’s ring to the fires of Mt. Doom only to be undone by its evil power. But Gollum ambushes Frodo, seizes the ring, and in his exuberance at regaining his “precious” falls into the fire. Thus the ring is destroyed, and Sauron is defeated.
Frdo fails on two counts: he cannot destroy the ring, and he loses it to Gollum. But that very catastrophe results in victory. In fact, it was impossible for Frodo to succeed without Gollum’s “help.” Thus it was a good catastrophe, a eucatastrophe, because through it Sauron was defeated.
But isn’t this just a deus ex machina, the miraculous intervention by some outside force to save the day when the hero is incapable of doing it himself? Actually not. There is a crucial difference between eucatastrophe and deus ex machina. Let’s take a closer look at each.
The god from the machine
As you certainly know, deus ex machina more or less literally means “god from the machine.” In ancient Greek theater, the characters would sometimes find themselves in such a mess that they couldn’t possibly extract themselves. To resolve their disaster, a god would appear, lowered onto the stage by a crane-like mechanism called a mechane. Being a god, he or she would instantly set the world right so everyone could go home happy.
In later eras, deus ex machina became the term for a contrived resolution to a story. It fell from favor as a literary device, although it has been used by prominent writers. Shakespeare’s As You Like It ends with a literal deus ex machina when Hymen, the god of marriage, appears and straightens out everyone’s mess. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies ends with the appearance of a naval vessel to rescue the marooned boys from the island. Even J. K. Rowling used the device at the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when the phoenix arrives, bearing the sorting hat containing the sword of Gryffindor, with which Harry kills the basilisk.
What makes these and similar examples dei ex machina is their complete lack of connection to anything that happened earlier in the story. The gods — literal or figurative — that resolve the conflict weren’t in evidence until needed to perform their magic. The naval vessel appeared out of nowhere. The phoenix arrived unheralded, even though later Dumbledore explains that Harry’s loyalty summoned him. Until he mentions it, we have no clue that phoenixes respond to loyalty.
That’s what a deus ex machina is: a resolution “out of the blue,” bearing no clear relationship to anything earlier in the story. As such, it’s a generally maligned technique.
Eucatastrophe in the making
By contrast, eucatastrophe is built into a story. It may look almost magical when it happens, but its roots are deeply embedded in what went before.
Gollum didn’t suddenly appear at the climax of The Lord of the Rings. He had a long history with the ring, stretching back before the events in The Hobbit. He lost the ring to Bilbo and later stalked Frodo, consumed by a terrible need to repossess it. His life was twice spared, once by Bilbo and once by Frodo, who took him as a guide over Sam’s objections. The end is even foreshadowed by Gandalf’s words: “My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”
So Gollum’s recapture of the ring has been a long time in coming. Moreover, the corrupting influence of the ring on Frodo has played out throughout the tale. We’ve watched him fall farther and farther under its spell. We know that once he reaches Mt. Doom, it’s a good bet he won’t be able to finish the job. If the ring is to be destroyed, it must be taken from him.
Here’s another, possibly ironic, example: Frank Capra’s classic film, It’s A Wonderful Life. Why ironic? Because an angel named Clarence does indeed descend to Earth to save George Bailey from suicide. But Clarence is brought in at the very beginning and spends considerable time and frustration seeking to prove what a wonderful life (as the title says) George has had.
In the end, George realizes Clarence is right and returns, ecstatic, to his family. There, he finds he’s about to be arrested. Although this doesn’t dampen his spirits, he’s still in for it. But suddenly, the whole town turns out to donate money to save him. Out of the blue? Not really. We’ve spent the whole film watching George help people, build up friendships, and create goodwill with the townsfolk. Of course they would come to his rescue.
That’s eucatastrophe: a sudden turn of events that changes disaster into victory, but not an inexplicable one. The roots of the resolution are deeply ingrained in the story. When it comes, it makes perfect sense even if it’s a surprise.
It takes planning
I’m on the record as being hostile to outlines, but that’s a personal issue. I respect those who can plan a story in detail before writing a word. Either way, it takes planning to effectively use eucatastrophe, whether in advance or in revision. If your sudden turn of events that resolves the conflict does not have roots in the story, you’ll wind up with a deus ex machina. So you have to plant those roots.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you want to use eucatastrophe to resolve a conflict:
- Have the odds stacked up against the protagonist throughout the story?
- Has the challenge become truly insurmountable for the protagonist?
- Does the agent who will resolve the conflict have a strong presence in the story?
- Do the resolving agent’s actions make sense given what’s gone before?
- Does the resolving agent have what it takes to do the job? Remember, the protagonist is overwhelmed. The resolving agent must be able to do what the protagonist cannot. George Bailey was in trouble because he’d lost a wad of cash; his friends had money to give. Frodo couldn’t destroy the ring; neither could Gollum, but he was so overwhelmed at regaining it that he was blind to the edge of the cliff.
If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you’ll have a solid eucatastrophe. If not, rework your outline or your draft until you can. It’s best to avoid the dreaded deus ex machina, but a solid eucatastrophe is a wonderful thing.