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One of the Pixar Rules of Storytelling states that “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating”, and it’s advice that I wholeheartedly agree with. But if you can’t use a coincidence to solve your dilemma, that means you are probably going to be using a plot device, most of the time. A plot device could be anything – a character, an event, an object etc. – that helps you to

Garlic: The silent killer. Image by lowjumpingfrog

Garlic: The silent killer.
Image by lowjumpingfrog

move the story forwards. For example, your protagonist is stuck in a cave full of hungry vampires, but they just happen to have a bulb of garlic in their pocket, which had been hurriedly shoved in there as they rushed from the house in the middle of making chilli tacos. The garlic is the plot device in this case. Nearly all stories have them, but if you write a bad plot device, particularly one that seems contrived or forced, it will seem just as unnatural as using a coincidence.

The Obvious Plot Device

One of the worst things a plot device can be is obvious. If your character takes a trip to the corner shop to buy some milk, but decides that they had better take along their medieval broadsword, just in case, the reader is immediately going to know that you plan to use it later on. Another way a plot device can appear obvious is if you make too many references to it compared with its initial importance in the story. If your character spends her entire journey to the corner shop thinking about her front door key, and how sharp its edges are, and how it’s probably made of silver, and how it’s shiny enough to see your reflection in, for no apparent reason, the reader is going to guess that it will become a plot device.

I always carry one in case of knight-related emergencies Image by Brian

I always carry one in case of knight-related emergencies
Image by Brian

The two main consequences of obvious plot devices are, firstly, that your reader will see it coming a mile off. This will take any suspense out of the story because as soon as your character gets attacked by a dragon on the way to the shop, your reader will think “It’s ok; he has a medieval broadsword to fight it off with”. The second is, they will be distracted by the inclusion of an as-yet irrelevant element. You don’t want them to spend the whole first chapter thinking “Why does he keep going on about his bloody front door key??”

The Un-Obvious Plot Device

It’s also important to make sure you don’t go too far the other way. It’s no good to have a plot device that isn’t mentioned at all, right up to the point when it becomes useful, or your conclusion will be anticlimactic. It can also make it appear as though you had no conclusion planned up to this point, and so are just crow-baring one in at the last minute.

It’s difficult to get the right balance when mentioning your plot devices, but the key aim here is to make sure that the reader is aware of its existence, but doesn’t think anything more of it until the last moment. A good way to give your plot device some discrete air time is to bring it up in a way that also has a secondary purpose. For example, if you want to bring attention to the front door key, and your character is also quite clumsy, you could describe them fumbling or dropping the key as they leave the house. On the face of it, it appears that the only purpose of this action is to develop your character, but it also brings attention to what will soon become a plot device.

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Feature Image by turboalieno