I admit I only had a hazy knowledge of what a plot device is when I decided to write this post. But that’s why I write them – to learn myself and in the process help other writers.
As I do more and more these days, I reached out to Twitter’s #writingcommunity and asked them what they thought these creatures of the writing craft are, and to give some examples. At the end of the post there’s a link to an hilarious YouTube video making huge fun of one particular type of plot device. Thank you to @Utgardloki2 for flagging this. Enjoy it, but don’t skip straight there!
According to various sources on Google, a plot device is defined as any technique in a narrative used to move the plot forward. They can be used across all types of story, and in some genres are plain expected.
Twitter writers came up with a great list for me to consider. Here are six plot devices explained.
Possibly the ultimate plot device, leaving the reader literally hanging because a chapter finishes at a critical point: a main character quivers in a life threatening situation, or must make a horrible choice, or has just been given some shocking news … cue end of chapter.
Cliff hangers used well carry the reader into the next chapter, whatever the time of night. Used badly, they are simply annoying, and the difference (as with all plot devices) is that the cliff hanger situation has to be highly relevant to the main plot. There’s no point leaving a minor character in a dangerous position. Who cares?
The name of this plot device is derived from Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s advice to a friend: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
It’s now used generically to describe an early focus on one particular object which grabs the reader’s attention and leads them to assume it’s going to be important later, but how? Now the writer has set up suspense, tension, and the reader has to keep on to find out. Also used, of course, in plays and films. One Twitter respondent gave me a wonderful example of this:
‘I’m watching an old episode of Bonanza. Early on, we see a child who keeps a scorpion as a ‘pet’ in a small box.’
So this scorpion has a role to play? But what? Watch on!
A wonderful plot device when used carefully. Foreshadowing establishes hints about what is going to happen, especially when that event is major and dramatic.
The essence of good foreshadowing is subtlety. Only after the event has unfolded should the reader truly understand the earlier hints, although it’s quite acceptable for them to get niggly feelings about something.
Because I’m not a detailed plotter, I often need to add these foreshadowing events once draft one is done and I know where the story and characters have ended up. It’s not difficult, and with the great hindsight I have by then, I can be very subtle yet accurate.
Flashback is one of my personal favourite plot devices. This is where the story goes back to a previous time, disrupting the chronological flow. I used it extensively in River Witch and a beta reader rapped me over the knuckles. She said it was too much, and correctly pointed out I had written some core scenes as flashback when they should be in real time. I redid the critical scenes and was happy. The rest remain.
Flashback provides important information which enhances readers’ understanding of the story, and especially of characters and their motivations. It can also be used to rest the reader for a while, give them a break from fast-paced action. Use it in a focused manner, making sure not to repeat my mistake!
The delight of mystery and thriller writers, red herrings set the reader off in the wrong direction only to come to a dead end, a bit like being in a maze. The red herring has to be credible though, a convincing alternative, otherwise the reader will immediately see through your clever plot device. You might like to do some foreshadowing as well. The reader will then realise, after the event, that you have hinted this direction was possibly not the right one after all. More tension!
Plot twists are exactly that: where the plot takes the reader in a different direction from the one they expected, thus (mostly) delighting them because they have been surprised. Nothing worse than a predictable story.
Several reviews of my Guardians of the Forest books talk about how the tale in parts leads you to expect one outcome. Then suddenly things change and another – more satisfying (phew) – outcome presents itself. I have to confess I didn’t deliberately set out to do this, simply an outcome of my feverish brain.
vs literary devices
My good friend and experienced writer Nina Romano, pointed out that plot devices are different from literary devices such as the use of symbolism, motifs, allegory. Sounds like a whole new blog post. Might ask Nina to write it.
Poor plot devices
Here’s an interesting article I came across which goes into some detail about plot devices which are NOT good to use. I would summarise this as those which either aren’t credible (even in a fantasy world) or smack of ‘trying too hard’.
- There are numerous plot devices out there which are tried and tested means of keeping a reader’s attention.
- They cross genres, albeit used in different contexts
- Ensure your plot devices are credible and subtle
- The essence of a good plot device is that it must flow naturally from your story and move along the key plot.
Now that you’ve read through all of this, and hopefully have a clearer understanding of what plot devices are (as I have), here’s the video I promised.
Let me know what plot devices I’ve missed, or your views on the ones described here. Happy writing.
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