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Plot Devices

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Plot Devices

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 11, 2016 7:15 am

In a previous lesson, I mentioned ‘plot devices’ and tossed it out there that I might do a lesson on these. So here it is, and I’ll start with a few general statements:

1. Most of these, if done well, can be a great way to move your plot along. You could probably find examples of each of them in successful literature--for many of them, the first time they were used, people sat up and took notice. However, each one also can be done poorly or can be overused; in that case, they run the danger of being stereotyped or predictable.

2. This isn’t even close to being an exhaustive list of plot devices—it’s just the ones that I thought would be either interesting or informative. For each, I’ll give a brief description and then something else about it: an example, a warning, some advantages and disadvantages, or something else.

3. I’m going to use ‘story’ here, but that’s just a good catch-all term for all fiction, long or short. It saves me from having to type ‘story or novel (or creative nonfiction)’ each time.

Breaking the fourth wall—the ‘fourth wall’ is a metaphor for that invisible wall through which the reader is able to observe the goings-on of the story. Think of a stage set—there is a back wall and stage left and right, and the audience in front, looking through the fourth wall. When a writer breaks the fourth wall, they directly address the reader, bringing her into the world of the book. Think of the famous line at the end of ‘Jane Eyre’—Reader, I married him.

Convenient Angel—a character who enters the story, usually at the point of the main character’s crisis, and with a few words or a deft action, helps the character to resolve the conflict—and then disappears.

Cliffhanger—when a story ends with the conflict unresolved, and in particular, with the main character in some sort of peril or suspense. This can be a great way to get your reader to willingly read the next story, in hopes of finding out whether Pauline gets untied from the railroad tracks. But it might also aggravate your reader; some people prefer closure at the end of the story.

Deus ex Machina—a person, object, or event that is very suddenly introduced with the intention of resolving the conflict. There’s no foreshadowing about this sudden introduction, and it’s overly convenient and coincidental. This is not generally looked upon as an indication of good writing, and is best avoided.

Foreshadowing—a hint—this could be an object, or a bit of dialogue, or some narration, or an event. Astute readers will recognize it as an indication of something important that will happen later. Sometimes readers will miss foreshadowing, but then when the significant event happens, they go back and think, Aha! So that’s why there was a red scarf at the bottom of the sock drawer! Many times, I’ve written a story and then gone back and added a bit of foreshadowing in an earlier chapter or paragraph.

Frame Story—a story within a story. The characters who are first introduced are there primarily for the purpose of setting up (or telling) the ‘main’ story. At the end of the main story, the original characters return, often to show the reader the consequences of the main story, or to tie up loose ends.

It was only a Dream—just don’t do this. Don’t. Do. This. DON’T DO THIS.

Literal Plot Device—this is a subset of deus ex machina. An object is invented, discovered, or given, solely for the convenience of the writer, to move the plot along or to make something difficult easier.

MacGuffin—an object, event, or character that seems as if it will be significant to the plot, but that has no purpose whatsoever—it doesn’t aid in characterization, plot development, or atmosphere.

Magical Realism—a story that seems to take place within our own world, but in which there is some small element of something magical or supernatural. In The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, the main character is able to perceive the emotions of her mother through the items that she bakes. In Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger, the main character’s father has one incident where he appears to walk on air.

Poetic Justice—when a person gets what they deserve, usually when their poor behavior has negative consequences

Red Herring—something that diverts the characters’ (and the readers’) attention from the thing that is really significant

Shoulder Angel—either a literal representation of good and evil on a characters’ shoulders (we’ve all seen that in cartoons, right?), or a moment in the story where the character has to weigh the consequences of his actions.

Ticking Clock—this could be a literal ticking clock—someone has a specific deadline to meet or something dire will happen—or it could be a metaphorical one, in which doom is approaching unless the main character can somehow get out of a predicament.

***
Are there additional plot devices that you've noticed, or that you've used? I'd love to hear about them.

As I said in the introduction, this is not the entire list of plot devices, just the ones that I either know something about or that I’ve seen in the Writing Challenge. Unfortunately, although they can be used to good effect, too often they are not.

I’d encourage you to examine your writing, to see if you have used any of these plot devices. The fact that they’re named and that they’re familiar techniques suggests that they’ve been used a lot, and that they run the risk of being overused and clichéd. One of the ratings criteria speaks to the uniqueness of your entry and other speaks to its predictability. If you’re going to use a plot device, do it in such a way that you don’t compromise those two factors. When I’m writing, I frequently ask myself, Where does this seem to be going? Then I go someplace else.

Do you have any questions or comments about plot devices? Ideas for future lessons? Post them here.
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Re: Plot Devices

Postby hwnj » Sat Jun 11, 2016 9:29 pm

Hi, Jan,

I'm having trouble grasping the difference between the MacGuffin and the Red Herring. Is the Red Herring more related to the story than the MacGuffin?

I am quite fond of poetic justice. It may be the one I use the most. (Like in this week's entry. :D )

Is allegory a plot device?
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Re: Plot Devices

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 11, 2016 10:48 pm

hwnj wrote:Hi, Jan,

I'm having trouble grasping the difference between the MacGuffin and the Red Herring. Is the Red Herring more related to the story than the MacGuffin?

I am quite fond of poetic justice. It may be the one I use the most. (Like in this week's entry. :D )

Is allegory a plot device?


I think of a Red Herring as being far more deliberate than a MacGuffin. The use of a Red Herring is very common in old mystery novels (such as those by Agatha Christie) where the author writes in clues that lead the reader to believe that the butler did it, for example, when all along it was the doctor's wife who poisoned the tea.

On the other hand, MacGuffins seem to me to be mostly due to poor writing. In a book that I'm currently editing (not by a FaithWriter, no one who will see this), there's a minor character--I'll call him David--who gets brought up every now and then. David has died accidentally even before the opening of the book, and he never gets a scene, even in flashback, but the main character brings him up often enough that the reader feels as if eventually he'll be important. But he really isn't--he doesn't need to be in the book at all.

In short--a MacGuffin has no purpose, but a Red Herring does (to deliberately deceive the reader).

I don't really think of allegory as a plot device, although the term is admittedly somewhat fluid. I consider allegory more of a genre (or a subgenre of a group that also includes fable and parable and parody and satire).
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Re: Plot Devices

Postby beff » Mon Jun 13, 2016 4:23 pm

Years ago, I may have used the "it was just a dream" a couple of times for the Writer's challenge. The judges who rated them employed the "poetic justice" device.
Beth LaBuff

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Re: Plot Devices

Postby glorybee » Mon Jun 13, 2016 4:26 pm

beff wrote:Years ago, I may have used the "it was just a dream" a couple of times for the Writer's challenge. The judges who rated them employed the "poetic justice" device.


:D :D :D
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Re: Plot Devices

Postby zacdfox » Sat Jun 25, 2016 3:55 pm

Hey, Jan! This is great stuff! I don't think I'm the best at using these unfortunately. Can you point us to some examples?

Have you used them in your challenge entries? which, by the way, I love your writing.

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Re: Plot Devices

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 25, 2016 4:09 pm

zacdfox wrote:Hey, Jan! This is great stuff! I don't think I'm the best at using these unfortunately. Can you point us to some examples?

Have you used them in your challenge entries? which, by the way, I love your writing.


Zach, thanks for your kind words. I like your writing, too.

I don't have examples for some of these in my writing (like the 'only a dream,' the deus ex machina, or the MacGuffin) because I intentionally avoid them. I'm sure that there are examples in literature of them being used well, but generally speaking, they're best avoided.

Others--foreshadowing, the frame device, the cliffhanger--I know I have used before, but I can't recall specifically and don't have the time today to go through my titles to find them. I'll try very hard to remember to do so this week, though. Stay tuned.

But you shouldn't worry about not using these, or not being good at them. None of them is absolutely necessary to good writing; they've got a name because they've been used so much that they're recognizable. I included them in these lessons to help people to become cannier readers and writers--more self-aware--but not necessarily so that they can start employing plot devices all over the place.
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