ATTENTION! This post contains spoilers.
Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks grew bored with staring at each other and the mountain scenery around them. They decided to tell stories. Then they decided to write stories. That was so much fun they decided to perform stories on the stage, (inventing stone theater seating and acoustics along the way.)
They were clever, those Greeks. Thanks to a guy called Aristotle, rules of writing guided the slightly less-clever writers that followed. (You know, rules such as “Anything that doesn’t advance the story should be cut.” And that means you, too, Euripides!)
They figured out that the hero should take on forces of antagonism and wade into deeper and deeper trouble, but the ancient writers were a bit shaky on how to get said hero out of said corner. So they invented deus ex machina, aka the god machine.
You know about that, don’t you? A statue of Zeus was wheeled out on a little wooden cart. (Can’t you hear that primitive axle creaking as it bumped across the stage?) And Zeus dispensed poetic justice.
Audiences loved it. Everyone got what he deserved. The damsel was saved. The hero was rewarded. The villain took one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and fell in a puff of smoke. Ah, yes, the dawning of special effects.
Fast forward to the modern era and twentieth-century movie-making: at least in the early days of film, deus ex machina was still in use. Zeus had been put out to Olympian pasture, but lots of substitutes took his place. The white-hatted sheriff could burst into a saloon just in time to save our hero from being killed by a gang of outlaws in black Stetsons. Pauline could be saved from peril–whether an oncoming train or a giant buzz-saw–by her hero. The G-men could arrive in the nick of time to save the hero from Putty Nose and his gang. Et cetera. All characters had to do was hang on long enough for help to arrive.
One of the most popular genres in film became the Western. What’s not to love? Lots of action, whooping, shooting, and galloping horses. Even my Scottish terrier likes to watch that sort of excitement on television. (He’s bored, however, whenever John Wayne gets soft-voiced and kisses Maureen O’Hara.) In the early westerns, the cavalry was going to come if you could just wait for them.
Supreme among the early western films is a black-and-white masterpiece from 1939 called STAGECOACH, directed by John Ford. It made John Wayne a star. It also presented in-depth character studies of the cast members, something most westerns of that era didn’t bother with. The third act of the film involves a long chase scene of the stagecoach hurtling across the desert badlands, with screaming Apaches in pursuit. There are stunts a-plenty–astonishing for their day and notable now because they created the imitators that followed. You have the daring leap off the stagecoach onto the backs of the galloping horses. You have the bullets slowly running out until there’s only one left in the Colt of the last able-bodied male passenger. A bullet that he’s saving for the young lady saying her prayers, so she won’t be taken captive. And then, a bugle sounds and here comes the cavalry. They vanquish Geronimo’s warriors and save the day.
If we watch this classic film today, it’s easy to be caught up in the story until the finish. Then we tilt our head to one side and feel confused. Deus ex machina doesn’t quite work for us anymore. We’re left thinking, who sent the text message so the cavalry knew to arrive in this square mile of Arizona?
Try watching the Errol Flynn movie, ROBIN HOOD. It builds up to a rousing battle scene in Prince John’s castle. Robin and his merry men are fighting with all they have, but they’re hopelessly outnumbered.
Hark! A trumpet sounds, and suddenly here’s King Richard the Lionhearted and his army galloping over the drawbridge to save the day. He’s escaped captivity in Austria and returned from Europe at the very moment Robin most needs him. Woe to Prince John and his fellow traitors. Hurrah for Robin! Boo to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Make way for lovely Maid Marian!
As a child, watching justice return to ye olde England, I was happy with this outcome. As an adult, I watch happily until the end and then I sigh, thinking of how it’s grown a bit hokey there. A bit too convenient and contrived. A bit too coincidental for belief.
Modern audiences have become used to seeing the protagonist save herself just seconds before the FBI agents arrive to rescue her. We want our heroes to be more daring, more capable, and more successful. If the cavalry shows up, it’s only because our hero sent for them.
Are you thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this writing principle already. What’s the point?
The point is that every time I tell myself that by now surely every aspiring writer out there knows the cavalry can’t come anymore, I see it in use. Only this afternoon, I found myself correcting yet another student manuscript where the protagonist is rescued from danger multiple times during the story.
No! No! No!
The protagonist must find the solution. The protagonist must locate the means of escape and have the daring to try it. The protagonist must not fold his hands and sit tamely in place, hoping a dear friend whom he’s never met until this moment in story time will show up to save his neck from the guillotine.
That, my friends, is weak plotting. Check every danger point in your story for the cavalry and send them back to their fort at once.