What I learned about deus ex machina from dominoes (and Gary “Big” Ross)

by Allen Palmer on May 10, 2010

in Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Tom Hanks in Big movie poster

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had about dramatic writing came from Gary Ross. It involves dominoes and deus ex machina.

I was fortunate to learn from some great lecturers and tutors during my time at UCLA Extension, but one of the most memorable evenings was when Neil Landau invited Gary Ross (director of Big, Dave, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) to share his secrets.

Gary was talking about deus ex machina and how writers shouldn’t reach in to arbritarily redirect the action once the story is underway. He said that you need to set up your dramatic scenario so that once you set your characters in motion, events should have a natural organic progression. If at any point the story stalls and the writer has to reach in to restart proceedings, it indicates a fundamental flaw in the story and you need to go back and rejig your setup.

This is good advice but it might not have stayed with me had this very successful writer-director not used a particularly memorable metaphor. He said that a good dramatic story is like those massive domino world record displays. You should be able to flick the first domino and then the other dominos fall as a natural consequence. If at any point the dominoes stop falling and you have to reach in and flick a second time, you should go back to the drawing board.

Deus Ex Machina and dominoes in Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral is a charming film but its popularity derives more from character, scene and dialogue than it does from overall story. The incredibly talented Richard Curtis makes us laugh but he is also dictating when Charles (Hugh Grant) and Carrie (Andie MacDowell) meet and part – it’s not driven by the characters themselves. An example is where Charles and Carrie “bump into one another” when buying wedding presents.

There follows the amusing scene where Carrie recounts her sexual history so we forgive the writer and go with it but this sort of happenstance encounter in the middle of a film (as opposed to a first act inciting incident) is not the stuff of good storytelling. Emotional power at the end of a film is created by the struggles of the character on the journey and if your lead character can just “bump into” his love interest, why should we care whether he gets her or not?

The dominoes had stopped falling and Richard Curtis needed to reach in and flick them again to keep the story going. Lovely film but do we feel at the end of the film that these two people have earned one another? I don’t think so. But we could have if the dominoes, once initally flicked, had all fallen of their own accord.

Deus Ex Machina and dominoes in The Castle

The Castle is one of Australia’s most popular films but again it relies more on character and scene comedy than overall narrative strength.

An example is when Darryl (Michael Caton) was up against it in his court case. It all looked lost, which is a good place for a hero to reach. But he didn’t have to dig himself out of the hole. The writers did it for him by delivering up the QC (Bud Tingwell) on a platter. Darryl just “bumps into him”. The writers gloss over the coincidence very well by making the gag about the QC’s son appearing in court (he’s there as a lawyer not a perp) but it’s not great storytelling. The dominoes had stopped falling and the writers reflicked with this deus ex machina. We would have felt more at the end of the film if Darryl had had to earn this guy.

Deus Ex Machina and dominoes in While You Were Sleeping

I really liked While You Were Sleeping and it was the film that made Sandra Bullock a star. Nice premise and the triangle between Lucy (Bullock), Jack (Bill Pullman) and Peter (Peter Gallagher) works really well. The narrative problem in this film comes when Lucy and Jack are getting on incredibly well and there is no reason for them not to get together but the writers know that the genre dictates that they must part. Girl gets boy. Girl has to lose boy. So they reach in at a party scene and arbitrarily create a fight. The characters don’t have a beef. The writers just give them one. The dominoes had stopped falling and they had to reflick. The film would have been better if the setup had been altered so the characters themselves (and/or their circumstances) generated the split – rather than the writers.

Deus Ex Machina and dominoes in Sex and the City

The dominoes stop falling here when Big is unable to go through with his wedding to Carrie. Why? Because it’s not a half hour show any more – it’s a 2 hour film – and they need to spin it out. So the writers reflick and take all the characters off to an island resort. If only this were the single flaw in this film.

The Domino theory of Deus Ex Machina

Gary Ross’s Domino theory of Deus Ex Machina has often come back to me when I’m writing my own screenplays and I’ve shared it often in my screenwriting classes. I hope it’s as helpful – and memorable – for you as it has been for me.

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