Many times, writers will set up a story where the protagonist has a problem, they take steps to solve it, and then—when things get particularly difficult, and we reach the crisis point—somebody else comes along and solves the problem for them. The police show up, another character figures things out, or a un/lucky accident takes the bad guy out. And the protagonist merely steps back and watches, or sits around waiting, while someone else saves the day.
The Greeks had a word for this. They called it Deus ex Machina. That means, loosely translated, a mechanical god. In many Greek tragedies, the hero would get himself stuck in a situation that was seemingly impossible to resolve. And a mechanical god would descend from the heavens and make everything okay.
This may have worked in the days of the early Greek tragedies. And it is great in real life if someone else comes and solves our problems for us. But in movies today, it’s not a satisfactory ending, at least not one that works for today’s savvy audiences.
We want to see the protagonist brought to his knees. We want to see him struggle, and be at the end of his rope. We want to believe—and we want him to believe—that there is no way out. And then we want the protagonist to gather all is strength and resources and dig down deep, and somehow, against all odds, figure a way out.
For example, remember the original Rocky movie? As most people know, it’s about a down-and-out boxer who has a goal (to beat Apollo). He goes on a journey to accomplish that goal. He trains hard, hones his fighting skills, and overcomes a lot of inner obstacles, like self-doubt. So far, so good. But Rocky is up against a formidable opponent, and at the low point of the movie, it looks like he has no chance of winning the fight at all.
Now, what would happen if the writer had decided that Rocky didn't have what it takes to be a champ, that his obstacles were insurmountable, and that someone else should come in and save the day? What if, for example, his trainer gets desperate and hires a hit man to whack Apollo and cripple him, so that Rocky doesn’t have to fight, and wins by default? What if the police got wind that Apollo deals drugs and arrests him? What if Rocky just sits around, waiting in his dressing room, while someone else solves the problem for him?
Would the story be satisfying? The answer is NO. We want to see Rocky face his opponent in the ultimate fight. We want to see him solve the situation for himself, using his training, his wits, whatever he can.
Or take Die Hard. Bruce Willis is up against terrorists. He is face to face with them. And things look pretty bad for him.
Would the story have been as successful if a cop sneaks into the building and kills the villain, getting Bruce Willis off the hook? Or if an earthquake comes along and destroys the building, and the bad guys get buried in the rubble and die? Would people have loved the movie as much? Once again—no. It would be a real let down. We don't want a Deus ex Machina. We want Bruce Willis to have an ultimate showdown with the antagonist, and we want him to win, despite the odds.
There’s a great cult horror film called Ginger Snaps. It’s about two teen sisters, and one (Ginger) is bitten by a werewolf and starts transforming into one. In the movie, the protagonist is Brigitte, who tries to save her sister. I won’t give away the ending, but in the story, Brigitte has a huge problem. She also has a goal—one that no one else is going to solve for her. The writer didn’t chose to have a doctor come in and give Ginger a shot that stopped the virus, which would be anti-climatic. Ginger didn’t become so crazed from the bite that she jumped off a cliff, ending the whole situation, while Brigitte hides out somewhere nearby. And a cop didn’t show up and shoot Ginger with a stun gun and then arrest her and take her away. None for these endings would have been nearly as dramatic—or satisfying—as creating a situation where Brigitte has no choice but to be the one to take action.
So, when creating a story, give your protagonist a goal that they need to accomplish. Put lots of obstacles in their way. Give them a worthy antagonist. And at the climax, have the protagonist take action to solve their own problem.