Plot device

Plot device

A plot device is an element introduced into a story solely to advance or resolve the plot of the story. In the hands of a skilled writer, the reader or viewer will not notice that the device is a construction of the author; it will seem to follow naturally from the setting or characters in the story. A poorly-written story, on the other hand, may have such awkward or contrived plot devices that the reader has serious trouble maintaining suspension of disbelief.

Calling an element of a work a 'plot device' is generally derogatory, implying a lack of complexity in the work. Judging something as a plot device is always subjective, and depends on the degree to which the 'item' serves other purposes or is well-integrated into the tale. For example, the 'magic item' which the protagonists of a fantasy novel have to find or destroy is often a plot device that serves no other purpose.

MacGuffins and related matters

One of the most common plot devices is the MacGuffin (a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock). A MacGuffin is an object (or character) which drives the actions of the characters, but whose actual nature is not important to the story; another object would work just as well, if the characters treated it with the same importance. Hitchcock said that "in a thriller the MacGuffin is usually 'the necklace'; in a spy story it is 'the papers'".

MacGuffins are frequently found in 'quest' fantasy stories; the magic artifact which the hero must recover in order to save his village, world or family is a MacGuffin. The labours of Hercules might well qualify.

MacGuffins are sometimes referred to as "plot coupons" (especially if multiple ones are required) as the protagonist only needs to "collect enough plot coupons and trade them in for a denouement". The term was coined by Nick Lowe.

Deus ex machina

The term "Deus ex Machina" is used to refer to a narrative ending in which an improbable event is used to resolve all problematic situations and bring the story to a (generally happy) conclusion.The Latin phrase "deus ex machina" has its origins in the conventions of Greek tragedy, and refers to situations in which a mechane (crane) was used to lower actors playing a god or gods onto the stage at the end of a play.

The Greek tragedian Euripides is notorious for using this plot device as a means to resolve a hopeless situation. For example, in Euripides' play "Alcestis", the eponymous heroine agrees to give up her own life to Death in exchange for sparing the life of her husband, Admetus. In doing so, however, she imposes upon him a series of extreme promises. Admetus is torn between choosing death or choosing to obey these unreasonable restrictions. In the end, though, Heracles shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death, restoring her to life and freeing Admetus from the promises. The first person known to have criticized the device was Aristotle in his "Poetics", where he argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play. [ cite web
title=Aristotle's Poetics, adapted from the translation by S.H. Butcher

Examples of Plot Devices in Fiction

In the Indiana Jones film series, Jones is always on the hunt for some mystical artifact. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he's trying to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant, but the Nazis beat him to it. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is on a search for the Holy Grail, but the Nazis are in search of it as well. Both films lead to physical and moral conflict between good and evil.

Several books in the Harry Potter series orient around a certain object. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry believes there is a magical stone in Hogwarts with special powers. Lord Voldemort needs this stone to bring back his body, and Harry looks for the stone first to prevent Voldemort's return.

In Agatha Christie books, plot devices help her detectives solve a murder mystery. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express her detective, Hercule Poirot, finds a little piece of information. He learns the victim was really a kidnapper. Although this knowledge seems unimportant, he believes the murder must be connected to this fact he learned.

J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is an example of the subjective nature of labelling something a plot device. The One Ring has been labelled a plot device, since the quest to destroy it drives the entire plot of the trilogy; however, for something to be considered a true plot device, its nature should be unimportant and that is not the case with the ring. The corrupting power of the ring and the ability of the humble to withstand it when the powerful would not are significant parts of the book and this, in the eyes of most commentators, elevates the ring above the level of a mere plot device. Fact|date=July 2008

Other devices

Another common form of plot device is the object, typically given to the protagonist shortly before, that allows them to escape from a situation that would be otherwise impossible. Nick Lowe coined the term 'plot voucher' for these, as the protagonist needs to "save the voucher and cash it in at the appropriate time." Examples of this might include the object given to a character which later deflects an otherwise fatal bullet. Most of the devices given to James Bond by Q fall into this category.

Other plot devices are simply one-offs to get the protagonist to the next scene of the story. The enemy spy, who suddenly appears, defects, reveals the location of the secret headquarters, and is never heard of again, would be an extreme example. Without this 'device' the hero would never find the headquarters and be unable to reach the climactic scene; however the character becomes less of a plot device if the author gives them a back-story and a plausible motivation for defecting and makes them an interesting character in their own right.

Many video games rely hugely on plot devices; lesser games are sometimes entirely centred around characters performing arbitrary tasks in order to 'win' the game. Even relatively well-plotted games often involve the protagonist in a series of relatively unconnected and unjustified tasks.

Some other plot devices include:
* Deathtrap — overly complicated method of killing a character, used solely to provide a means of escape
* Quest — complicated search for capture or return of an object or person
* Quibble — following the exact terms of an agreement to escape the intended meaning

In humor-themed forms of entertainment, particularly those that break the fourth wall in pursuit of comedy, plot devices or the concept itself may be deliberately pointed out to the audience for a joke. For example, in the one-shot DC comic book "Blasters", written by Peter David, one of the protagonists is shown installing a device made by an alien race known as the "Plaht" into her spacecraft that will allow herself and her companion to locate the other protagonists, which was required to forward the plot of the story. Her companion then seemingly turned to face the reader and said, "Oh, I get it. It's a "Plaht device"."

The animated series Sheep in the Big City even featured a robot character actually "named" "Plot Device," who, apparently, worked for the antagonists and served no purpose other than to advance the plot when it arrived at an apparent standstill (usually by coming up with ridiculous plans to capture sheep).

The popular card game munchkin contains a literal "plot device" that dramatically turns the tide of a game.

ee also

* Literary technique


External links

* [ Television Tropes and Idioms] Big wiki of literary tropes, including plot devices.

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