Plot device  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A plot device is an element introduced into a story to 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; however one might hesitate to apply the term to the Ring of The Lord of the Rings, since it also serves many other purposes in the book.

Common plot 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 could fall into this category. The gifts given to Perseus could also count.

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
  • Deus ex machina — artificial or improbable means of resolving a story, such as having it turn out to be a dream
  • Quest — complicated search for capture or return of an object or person
  • Quibble — following the exact terms of an agreement to escape what would normally be expected
  • Red herring — a person, event or object which deflects attention from the real thing
  • Sexual tension — wherein two or more of the characters sexually long for one another, but the consummation is postponed or never occurs.

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." (In this case, the "Plaht device" would be considered a deus ex machina.) 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 other purpose than to advance the plot when it arrived at an apparent standstill (usually by coming up with ridiculous plans to capture Sheep).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Plot device" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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