Once, in the halcyon days of my youth, I wrote a story patterned after the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the biblical story, Judith frees the Jewish people from an Assyrian blockade by first seducing and then killing Holofernes, the Assyrian general who is besieging Bethulia. In my story, set in Nigeria during colonial rule, my character frees her village from the rule of a vicious military officer, also by seducing and then killing the officer.
Everything went fine until, like Judith, I had my character pull out a machete and chop off the interloper’s head. The trouble was that I had not, up to that point, mentioned that the main character had a machete.
What I‘d unknowingly done was to use what’s called a deus ex machina device. Deus ex machina is a Greek term for “god from a machine,” and ancient Greek playwrights were so guilty of using it that we’ve named the device after them.
A deus ex machina device is “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition). In Greek tragedy, once the plot had tangled to the point at which the playwright had no perceivable way to bring the drama to a conclusion, a machine would bring a “god” onto the stage. The god would then solve everything with a wave of his or her omnipotent little finger. Aeschylus introduced the device, and Euripides (of Medea fame) popularized it. At times, even Shakespeare resorted to the deus ex machina.
So, why was this plot device a misstep on my part, if even Shakespeare made use of it? Because for a contemporary audience, such contrivances are lazy and unsatisfying. By failing to use foreshadowing (or, as I like to say, dropping hints), you miss out on building a good sense of suspense for your readers. These days, foreshadowing the ending is always, always necessary. (Note that foreshadowing should be subtle – you want the clues to make sense after the fact.)
In my own story that I mentioned above, any intelligent reader would experience an unsatisfying surprise when the unexpected machete makes its appearance above the officer’s neck. Because if Judith’s going to off Holofernes, then my reader had better be clued in to it by Judith’s tucking that machete into her robes prior to going to see him. That way, my reader sees that Judith plans to put that machete to work. He or she then eagerly awaits the conclusion, which is bound to be bloody.
Had I used this little bit of foreshadowing, I could have created a sense of suspense and anticipation that the story otherwise lacked – and that leads not only to a satisfying conclusion, but satisfied readers.