Eucatastrophe: It’s a Real Word, Spellchecker

Gollum

Coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, this type of event is one that closely resembles Deus Ex Machina.  That means people don’t like it.  Tolkien did say that this could happen with the use of Deus Ex Machina, but that isn’t easy to pull off.  So, what is it?

Eucatastrophe–  Combining the ‘Eu’ prefix for good with ‘Catastrophe’, this is when a sudden event at the end of story helps the protagonist.  It ensures that the hero doesn’t fail or die.  For example, Frodo having succumbing to The Ring still accomplishes his goal due to Gollum taking it, and the connected finger, into the volcano.  Clearly, that wasn’t the intention, but it saved the day.

It really is hard to see how this is different from Deus Ex Machina if you are only looking at the basics.  That would be the hero being saved by an event that is out of their control, which is how they both operate.  Frodo is not in control of Gollum’s actions or aware of the attack being what saves the day.  In this way, many people get the two types of endings mixed up.

The big difference is that eucatastrophe is plausible even if it happens beyond the control of the hero.  It doesn’t come from nowhere.  We know Gollum wants The Ring and will do anything to get it back.  We can believe that he would pounce to stop it from being destroyed and claim it for himself.  We can believe him biting Frodo’s finger off even though it gets him killed since his obsession is shown to be all-consuming.  Nothing that happens at the end of this story is implausible.  Surprising and unexpected?  Yes.  Yet, still possible under the rules and continuity of the story.

Another aspect of eucatastrophe is that it’s optimistic.  Hence, the ‘eu’ or good prefix.  It’s basically a disaster in favor of the hero.  Weird way of putting it, but that’s how the word kind of translates.  This connects the term to ‘Plot Armor’ as well, but it’s not as blunt and ridiculous.  Again, there is evidence that the event can occur even if you have to read a second time to see it.  It also means that this is a ‘happy ending’, which can strengthen the Deus Ex Machina idea.  Such a delicate literary term, but I think it’s because you don’t see it very often outside of certain circles.

I don’t think this is as difficult a trick to pull off either.  For a Plotter, you have the good ending in your head and know how to set the stage.  Even if you switch to another idea, it will probably be something else that turned up and proved to be a better option.  For a Pantser, it could end up being a cool idea that comes up from something else you did.  There’s some connection to what’s been established, which is what eucatastrophe is built upon.

So, what do you think about Eucatastrophe?  Have you ever used it even by accident?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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16 Responses to Eucatastrophe: It’s a Real Word, Spellchecker

  1. L. Marie says:

    Yay! I’m familiar with the term because of a past freelance project regarding Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. So great post! I love the overturning of the catastrophe in LoTR. I know some authors complain about disasters overturned. But I love a happy ending. 😄 Not saying every ending has to be a happy one. Some tragedies can be satisfying (ala Frank Herbert’s Dune series). But I love the ending of LoTR.

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  2. I had not heard the term, but it’s interesting to present. We’re taught not to allow our characters success by coincidence. However, with Gollum being an important character, I think it works well. Gandalf even foreshadowed it when the thought he still had some role to play.

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  3. I have not used a eucatastrophe. At least I don’t think so. It is something that does have some appeal if only for the potential drama connected with the event.

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  4. The twist at the end works for J. R. R. because, as you said, he set it up and kept reminding us that Gollum’s role was possibly not over. But that’s true of any plot twist in a story. If it’s true to the characters, it will succeed, and if not, the readers will get annoyed!

    I do not personally use them, because I like my characters to solve their own problems.

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    • I’m always torn. My next big hero is going to depend a lot of chaos and coincidence because that’s how his story goes. I feel like giving him the ability to use wisdom and intelligence to solve his own problems takes away part of his personality.

      There’s also the whole thing about coincidences and surprises happening in real life. So, I never know if it’s okay to do the same in fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, I think eucatastrophe is an important element of fiction. I think it is described as an unexpected turn for the better.

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