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What Is a Plot Device?
A plot device is a storytelling tool or technique that is used to propel a narrative. A well-written plot device can be deeply satisfying to a reader or audience member. On the other hand, a clumsy plot device—such as a truly random plot twist—is a sign of bad writing. Keep in mind that a plot device does not need to be complicated. For instance, simple flashbacks, which elucidate a character’s backstory, are plot devices. A skilled novelist or screenwriter does not select a plot device based on its complexity; they select it based on its storytelling potential.
7 Examples of Common Plot Devices
Myriad plot devices exist in fiction, such that there are too many to fully catalog. However, here are some of the more popular ones, which appear in many novels, short stories, films, TV shows, and plays:
- Red herring: A red herring is a fakeout—a plot point that appears to be crucial but later proves to be a distraction from material that’s actually important. Agatha Christie loaded her whodunit mystery novels with red herrings, and her readers actively looked for them, hoping to spot the frauds among the actually important characters.
- Plot voucher: A plot voucher is essentially the opposite of a red herring. It refers to a character or object that is introduced early in a story but does not become critical until later in the story. This follows the Chekov’s Gun theory. The Russian playwright Anton Chekov wrote that people and objects should not be introduced to a story if they will not later play a role in the narrative. Specifically, Chekov believed that if a gun was hanging on the wall in the first scene, at some point that gun would have to go off. A Chekov’s gun can provide foreshadowing in thrillers or mystery whodunits.
- MacGuffin: Also known as a plot coupon, a MacGuffin is a plot device wherein the characters of the story pursue an object that is ultimately insignificant beyond its ability to move the story forward. The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed putting MacGuffins into his thriller films. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, multiple characters obsess over the delivery of a briefcase, though what the briefcase contains is never revealed. J.K. Rowling pays homage to this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, where Harry and Voldemort both seek a stone with magical powers.
- Love triangle: A love triangle is a love story involving three characters. Typically two of the characters are both in love with the third. In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, both Nathan and Stingo are in love with Sophie, although the story is about so much more than romantic love.
- Quest: Like in Homer’s Odyssey, many of the world’s most popular and timeless narratives involve characters on a quest. Indiana Jones is forever on a quest in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Jedi knights embark on one epic quest after another in the Star Wars series. These quests drive the narrative, and various subplots fall into place around them.
- Cliffhanger: A cliffhanger is one of the most commonly used plot devices for good reason. By not resolving an ending, an author keeps their readers yearning for more and certain to come back. Most comic books end each installment on a cliffhanger—often with the hero dangling over a death trap.
- Deus ex machina: A deus ex machina is a plot device that connects the loose ends of an entire plot and brings them to resolution. Authors from the Greek tragedian Euripides to Charles Dickens to Stephen King have relied on a deus ex machina to resolve dense dramatic conflicts. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the wizard Gandalf often functions as a deus ex machina character—able to appear in tense moments to resolve situations that may otherwise seem hopeless. Note that a deus ex machina is often a crutch. A sudden, unearned resolution to a conflict (especially one that egregiously violates the rules of the real world) can literally elicit groans from a dissatisfied audience. So use this plot device with prudence.
3 Tips for Using Plot Devices in Your Writing
Plot devices can enhance any story when used effectively. Here are five writing tips to make sure you employ yours to maximum effect:
- Use plot devices to enhance your core story. A plot device is not a gadget to cover up egregious plot holes or two-dimensional characters. Quality storytelling still requires strong fundamental storytelling, vivid worldbuilding, and relatable characters. Get these elements in place first and then layer on plot devices.
- Keep your plot devices organic to the narrative. Fiction depends on an audience’s suspension of disbelief, and a clunky plot device can result in loss of the suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, instead of paying attention to the main character and the world of the story, a reader might find themselves analyzing the plot device itself.
- Learn the difference between plot devices and literary devices. Literary devices are writing tools that include motifs, symbolism, allegory, and chiasmus. They can elevate your actual writing, but they are not inherently connected to story.