Plot devices and how to use them
You’re writing a story. It has a plot. But what are plot devices, we hear you say?
In a nutshell, plot devices are narrative techniques that move your plot forward. Plot devices are commonly used in film and TV and also in genre fiction, where action is central to the narrative.
It’s worth giving some thought to plot devices and if and when you are going to use them.
When they’re well used (ie, when they arise from the characters and setting of your story), the reader or audience will barely notice them because they’ll be so caught up in the world you’ve created. On the other hand, using plot devices in a clumsy or obvious way will make your story feel contrived, or annoying, or simply not very well constructed.
Certain plot devices have been so well used that they have become narrative tropes and/or clichés. ‘It was all a dream,’ deus ex machina, light-bulb moments and amazing coincidences are just four examples of a plot device with the potential to ruin your story. If the plot device you are considering is one your reader will see coming a mile off, it will make the relevant scene feel melodramatic, or corny, like an episode of a hackneyed soap opera or a bad low-budget film.
On the other hand, it’s all in the execution. In the hands of a skilled writer, careful use of plot devices can enhance your storytelling. Just make sure that any plot device you decide to use springs organically from your story’s characters, circumstances and setting. You don’t want to palm your readers off with ‘and all of a sudden the monster landed from space and killed the baddy and we thought he was dead only he wasn’t and then then he woke up and it had all been a nightmare.’
Here are some plot devices that can be effective in fiction, providing you proceed with caution.
QUICK LINK: What's the difference between plot and story?
Often used in thrillers, a MacGuffin is a motivating force (an object or goal) that the lead character is in pursuit of. It may not in itself be important to the plot – Alfred Hitchcock, who popularised it, said it was ‘the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.’ Star Wars creator George Lucas, though, believed it was the object of everybody’s search and that ‘the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on screen’. Hitchcock or Lucas? You choose, but use your MacGuffin well.
One oft-cited example of a MacGuffin is the suitcase in Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction: securing the suitcase is the initial motivating force for the entire chain of events in the film but the contents are never revealed. See also, One Ring to Rule them All, The Maltese Falcon, Rosebud.
This term has come to be used to described the plot device of foreshadowing: where something that you have planted early in the story later assumes a vital dramatic significance. The name stems from Anton Chekhov’s belief that everything you put in your writing should have a dramatic purpose: ie, if an object (eg, a gun) appears then it should be used. False ‘Chekhov’s guns’ have become commonly used to misdirect readers and viewers.
Literally, if you let the reader's gaze fall on a shotgun over the mantelpiece, it should require someone to fire it later in the story. Metaphorically, Chekhov's Gun is particularly prevalent in whodunits and mysteries, such as Agatha Christie's or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories: the murderer and his or her method are usually telegraphed early on. (But we won't spoil it for you by pointing them out!) In literature, this is easily achieved with subtlety, burying the "gun" among other background details. In film and TV, it is usually rather more blatant, with the camera lingering on an object after the protaganists' attention has shifted.
Where would mystery and suspense novels be without red herrings – deliberately placed pieces of information (‘clues’) that make readers jump to wrong conclusions? Planting false clues as an intentional device is a staple of much genre fiction and enables writers to create plot twists and build suspense as readers attempting to ‘solve’ the story’s central mystery are kept guessing. Until a mystery's conclusion, the confusion between a red herring and a Chekhov's gun creates much of the tension. Indeed, without red herrings, Chekhov's therefore easily-spotted gun loses its impact.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Severus Snape is a red herring, sneaky and behaving suspiciously but not, eventually guilty. In fact, Snape's chequered path through the books is littered with red herrings. Less ambiguously, Sirius Black is painted as an evil character, to be feared, which is undermined when he finally meets Harry.
Ending chapters or scenes with unresolved action or characters in a predicament is a sure-fire way of maintaining reader interest and keeping pages turning or viewers glued to screens. As any soap opera fan will know, it’s a time-honoured device in serials, ensuring people are hooked on finding out the next development in a narrative. In non-episodic fiction, this is a great way to lead into a perspective or timeline shift, keeping readers on tenterhooks in plot A while you fill in some backstory with subplot B, but it is likely to frustrate audiences looking for a satisfying conclusion if you do it at the end!
Although the cliffhanger has been around for centuries it was particularly refined by Charles Dickens, whose fiction was often published in serialised form. Readers would have to buy the next issue to find out what happened next. The term is usually thought to originate from Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, of which he ended one instalment (chapter) with his hero literally hanging from a cliff.
Race against time
Give your thriller a feeling of propulsion by creating a sense of impending disaster as your characters attempt to crack the narrative’s key problem within a limited timeframe. This plot device is a time-honoured way of structuring a thriller, where the disaster to be averted against the clock will be potentially catastrophic, but cleverly handled, it could work in other contexts – even the necessity of handing in a spreadsheet by a deadline could give a comic novel its own internal sense of urgency.
Thriller fans will remember this technique taken to its extreme, with nailbiting efficacy, by the US TV series 24. The race to rescue a hostage/victim underpins many a thriller in multiple media, as does "race for a cure" in apocalypse/zombie stories such as World War Z, or the romcom staple, "race to the airport".
A good twist ending – a radical departure from the expected outcome – should change the entire way your reader has perceived the narrative you have created. There is a great difference between a good and plausible twist, which the writer has skilfully plotted and foreshadowed, and a ‘deus ex machina’ ending or implausible twist, where some unlikely element is suddenly introduced to create an ending or resolution.
We're not going to highlight successful individual twist endings: often knowing there is a twist is enough to undermine it. But for egregious fails, look no further than Dallas, the glitzy US soap that painted itself into a corner for an entire series before reveaing it had all been a dream. See also, Tolkien's Giant Eagles, the hand-waving emancipation of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the divisive climax of US TV smash Lost.
We hope this look at what plot devices are and what plot devices to use (and avoid!) will help you to write fiction that readers can’t put down! For even more guidance, our one-to-one tutoring service could be just what you need. Click here to find out more.