I'm looking for a word or phrase like "deus ex machina," but to describe misfortune rather than resolution. It needs to communicate that the situation "came from out of nowhere," and/or feels "tacked-on" without any prior build-up.

Any ideas?

Edit: For example:

The ___ in the book really annoyed me. The main character died of an illness at the end, even though nothing of the sort was hinted at in any previous plot arcs.

  • So you want a phrase that describes a sudden, unforeseen misfortune?
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:28
  • This is really a question about literary criticism, but I don't think it makes much sense. "deus ex machina" is standard lit crit terminology for a "plot device" introduced by the author. OP is getting confused between the actions of the author and the perceptions/reactions of the characters in the work of fiction. Aug 26, 2011 at 1:28
  • 1
    ...In general, abrupt meaningless events and other unexplained oddities in a work of fiction are seen as sloppy work. One of the few I know of with an actual name is poor continuity (generally applied to film, rather than books). Maybe "disjointedness", or "lack of rationale" might do it here, but basically these are faults, not plot devices that we'd bother giving names to. Aug 26, 2011 at 2:23
  • Given your edit, I think if this were referred to as a thing, it would be in English a 'sudden tragic turn' or some other multi-word phrase. You might get better luck on Writers.SE or literature.SE by asking for what this plot technique is called.
    – Mitch
    Aug 26, 2011 at 3:36
  • 1
    I think that's my point. LitCrit doesn't generally have standard terms for "faults", because mostly it's concerned with analysing good writing. Inter alia, @simchona has plot twists - which are normally referred to positively, but you could make your point by calling them arbitrary unexplained/unconvincing plot twists. Aug 26, 2011 at 6:24

7 Answers 7


There is no phrase (that I know of, obviously) that is an exact opposite to the concept of Deus Ex Machina, which is very specific. It doesn't just describe resolution out of nowhere, it describes resolution in the heart of a situation that looks so utterly bleak that there really can be no resolution. I believe Simchona's answer, "sudden tragedy" is the best you will get out of our current language. However it is not an exact opposite since sudden tragedy is free to strike in good, bad, or neutral times, not just good ones as one would expect from the opposite of this phrase.

Since "Deus Ex Machine" literally means "God out of the machine." You might consider using your own psuedo-latin phrase, for example:

"Nex Ex Machina" (Death out of the machine)

"Diaboli Ex Machina" (Satan out of the machine.)

(PS: I know nothing about Latin so I am 100% guessing that I can just grab 'deus' and replace it with other nouns to keep the same meaning!)

  • 2
    Er, no, not really. 'Deus ex machina' referred to a very specific way of ending (bad) Greek tragedies, when a god flew on stage (which meant the actor required the help of the 'machine', a crane), and resolved all problems with a wave of his wand (or caduceus). Aug 31, 2011 at 14:15
  • @TimLymington That's interesting, I didn't know that, but I wasn't speaking of the origin, I was talking about how it's used today.
    – Jeremy
    Aug 31, 2011 at 19:03

To describe a sudden change in a book, you can call it a plot twist. A word that describes more than that given example is surprise:

  • something that surprises someone; a completely unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement: His announcement was a surprise to all.

  • a coming upon unexpectedly; detecting in the act; taking unawares.

  • I think "tragedy" or "sudden tragedy" is perfect. Catastrophe implies that it is necessarily an extremely severe negative event, which isn't required by the question.
    – Jeremy
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:41
  • True--tragedy is more of "misfortune" while catastrophe is "overwhelmingly horrible misfortune"
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:42
  • To me, these words imply a larger scale than what I'm looking for. I've edited the question with an example.
    – Maxpm
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:47
  • @Maxpm--Updated. Please let me know what you think
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:51
  • @simchona "Plot twist" just about works in my case.
    – Maxpm
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:53

What about blindsided? I am not aware of a good noun form, though.

  • sucker-punched.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 26, 2011 at 0:34
  • The noun form would be blindsiding, which is just as "good" as blindsided when considered as a word. Not standard lit. crit. terminology, but if neither OP or his readers know or care care about that, they'll probably understand your suggestion well enough. Aug 26, 2011 at 2:16

You mean like a bolt out of the blue?

  • That can be good or bad, as long as its sudden
    – user10893
    Aug 25, 2011 at 23:36

Talking in context of the book, I'd say something like this:

The abrupt climax of the book really annoyed me.

"Climax" is used in literature to refer to the major points in a story, and when you have an absolutely impetuous climax, there'd be no previous complication that suggests that a climax is about to occcur.


You could try "Act of God". Perhaps rather unfairly, that tends to have a negative connotation (perhaps because of its use by insurance companies to describe events which they won't pay out on) so I think it suits your request.


You could try diabolus ex machina which means the devil in the machine. It's when something horrible appears out of the blue and ruins things. I don't know if it's a technical term but I've heard it used before so you could try it.

TV tropes has more examples on this term.

  • And it would be “out of”, not “in”.
    – theUg
    Feb 27, 2013 at 8:35
  • @TimLymington It occurred (albeit incorrectly) here.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 27, 2013 at 8:38

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