What Are Plot Devices? (Why You Should Be Cautious)

From Helping Writers Become Authors:

What are plot devices? Basically, they’re exactly what they sound like: events that maneuver the plot in particular directions.

All stories are built on plot devices. In truth, everything that happens in a story is a plot device. Story structure beats are plot devices. Character arc beats are plot devices. Plot devices are the little clockwork gears that make a story run.

This means plot devices are also one of a writer’s most important tools. Need to figure out a way to get two characters to show up at the same place at the same time? A plot device is your key. Want two characters to have good reason to hate each other? Plot device!

This isn’t a bad thing. However, the term “plot device” often comes with the negative connotations associated with poorly executed moments that feel contrived or like authors are manipulating events in order to make the plot do what they want.

Now, of course, all writers must “manipulate” the plot to some extent. After all, we’re not just responsible for creating the story, we’re also responsible for steering it. We know we need to get the characters from Point A to Point B, which means coming up with plausible plot devices to move them along the road toward the final Climax.

The trick is to do so in a way that honors the entire context of the story. Each event should arise naturally from the story’s cause and effect. Any time something in a story seems to exist solely to explain a previous event or further a future event, that’s the sign of a contrived plot device. By contrast, a successful plot device is one that seems to exist solely for its own sake—as if it were just as important as any other event—which allows it to seamlessly integrate with the rest of the story.

What Are Plot Devices? 8 Possibilities

This topic is on my mind right now, as I’ve been brainstorming my way around the need for a particular plot device in my fantasy work-in-progress Wildblood. Today, I want to talk about how you can recognize obvious plot devices and then how to troubleshoot your own process to determine whether or not the plot devices will seem contrived to readers.

To get us started, here are eight possible ways plot devices may show up in your story.

1. Event

At its simplest, a plot device is something that happens in your story. It could be a birth, a death, a robbery, a wedding, a dance-off, a scam—you name it. Most of the time, we refer to these events as “beats” or “scenes.” We usually only think of them as plot devices when they seem contrived—as if the only reason an event is happening is to either facilitate a different scene or to instigate a particular emotion in readers.

For Example: In Jupiter Ascending, the main characters are betrayed by a friend—an event that exists solely to facilitate certain subsequent plot developments and that is not supported by either proper build-up or motive or by emotional consequences after the fact.

2. Info

Anything that changes the plot moves the plot, something information is capable of doing all by itself. Any time a character learns something new, that’s a plot device. Readers will always trust that new information is important to the story. However, if that information exists only to be interesting in the moment, without being paid off later, then it is likely a poorly executed plot device.

For Example: This one is common in jargon-heavy or worldbuilding-centric stories, which often drop lots of info, not all of which is necessary either for advancing the plot or even just fleshing out the world. In the adaptation of The Witcher, the “cost of magic” (demonstrated by a girl’s hand withering after performing magic) is used as a device to inform the plot early on, but then dropped from the narrative when it becomes inconvenient.

3. MacGuffin

A MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock famously called it, is a thing or person that inspires pursuit throughout the story. The falcon statuette in The Maltese Falcon is one of the most famous examples. A MacGuffin can also be a person or even just a bit of information. This is a powerful plot device, but it only works well when the MacGuffin is not incidental. It needs to be there for more than just a reason to keep the characters moving; it needs to offer meaning to both plot and theme by the end.

For Example: A popular MacGuffin in recent film was the Tesseract in the MCU, which characters pursued through multiple entries in the series. Ultimately, it was a successful plot device, since it remained important to the very end of the original plotline, when it was claimed by the arch-villain Thanos as one of the Infinity Stones.

. . . .

6. Plot Twist

A plot twist can be one of the most enjoyable types of plot device. It can also be one of the most abused. A plot twist should never exist just for the sake of the twist. It should be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of everything that’s come before and should matter to what comes after. If you could pull the twist without affecting the progression of the plot, you know you’re probably looking at a manipulative plot device.

For Example: For my money, one of the most annoying plot twists was the out-of-left-field reveal in The Avengers: Age of Ultron that Clint Barton/Hawkeye had a secret family. It doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect, since the franchise built on it in subsequent episodes. But at the time, it lacked any setup and felt super-manipulative.

Link to the rest at Helping Writers Become Authors