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Literary Devices: Plot Devices

Continuing my series on using literary devices in fantasy, we come to one that’s sure to create a little controversy in the comments. For some folks on both the writing and reading side of literature, plot devices are nothing more than clichés that need to die. However, plot devices are an important part of fiction, especially genre fiction, and the challenge for writers isn’t “how do I stop using plot devices?” Rather, the challenge should be “how do I put a fresh spin on the plot device I want to use?”


A plot device in itself is not a cliché. Rather, a plot device is something that exists only to advance the plot. It can be a character, an object, a particular twist, or some kind of trope used for the purpose of driving the character in a specific direction. In fantasy, some common plot devices are magical or very important objects (McGuffin, also very popular in thrillers and mysteries), magic that appears to save the day at a key moment (deus ex machina, also common in science fiction under the guise of a really big powerful force), or the villain exposition scene where the villain tells the hero exactly what his evil plans were, giving the hero time to escape or devise a way out.


Now, I may be unusual in the fantasy reader world, but I don’t mind any of those plot devices, even if they do seem overused or clichéd. In truth, I sort of expect some of them in fantasy the same way I expect them in a mystery or a thriller or a romance. If I see a romantic comedy, I know that a common plot device is the obligatory misunderstanding that threatens to drive the lovers apart. I don’t mind that. It’s kind of a signature of romantic comedies. What makes it fresh, funny, interesting, and appealing is the acting, the filmmaking, or some other aspect of the movie.

Similarly, if the voice and characters are fresh and interesting, and if the writing is compelling, I’m perfectly happy to see familiar plots and plot devices show up in the fantasy novels I read.

So how do you use these familiar plots and plot devices without making them seem cliché?

  • Subvert the plot device. Perhaps you have a magical object that everyone needs, but when they find it, it doesn’t work or it’s not what people expected. Perhaps your Chosen One, the hero who has to behave in a certain way to save the world, acts completely the opposite, and still, everything works out. I think a great resource for ideas about how to subvert or avert clichés is the site TV Tropes. I’m not saying you should copy other subversions, but reading how other authors or writers have subverted plot devices can stimulate your own creativity.

  • Make a list. If you know in a general sense what your plot involves and you run into a spot where you need something to propel the plot forward, don’t immediately resort to a tried and true plot device. Instead, stop and make a list of 27 or 43 or 19 things you could do. The number doesn’t matter too much as long as it’s fairly large. The point is that once you get the obvious things out of the way early on, your brain will start searching for other ways around your stumbling block. You’ll get closer to something truly original and fresh the further you go down your list, and even if you still end up using a standby device, the exercise might help you come at it with a fresh angle.

  • Play it for laughs. Parodies make great use of clichés, and if you’re aiming for funny, you can use all the clichés you want as long as you play them for laughs. Even if you aren’t intentionally writing something funny, you can still play your plot devices for laughs. Perhaps you use a prophecy, but your main character groans that he’s sick of prophecies, and really, why is this one so important, and couldn’t there be some other interpretation? That’s a pretty simple example, but you get the point—even in a “serious” work, you can play a standard cliché for laughs.

  • Focus on characters. This may be more of a personal thing, but I think if the plot naturally arises from character choices, readers will forgive a lot of clichés or devices that they might not otherwise forgive. Look at Harry Potter. Rowling used a lot of standard plot devices throughout her series, but Harry, Ron, Hermione, Voldemort, Dumbledore, and the rest were so compelling and real that it didn’t matter. Much of the series does involve Harry reacting to horrible stuff that Voldemort does, but because we believe that Harry is heroic, brave, and reasonably intelligent and gifted, we can believe that he would react to Voldemort in those particular ways. (Incidentally, this is why Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is my favorite of the series—it’s the one where Harry starts driving the plot instead of just reacting.) If the plot and plot devices arise naturally from character choices and actions, and if the plot devices are consistent with the world, readers might recognize them, but they’ll often forgive them.

  • Keep it fresh. This is probably the most subjective piece of advice I’ll give in this column, because really, it’s hard to know if your voice is fresh and your characters are interesting and real. But when you get to the point where you feel like your spinal cord is exposed to the world for scientific study, you’re probably starting to find your own voice. Beta readers and editors who are familiar with your genre can help a lot.

Plot devices aren’t evil. Rather, they are a necessary and expected part of fiction. The key is to use them judiciously, avoid relying on any one particular device, let them arise naturally from the plot and character actions, and put a fresh spin on them as much as possible.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Jamie says:

    Some excellent tips 🙂 It reminds me of an episode of PodCastle I heard about an evil tyrant who wanted to stop a prophecy about a hero who would overthrow him and bring peace to the land, and in trying to stop the prophecy he ended up fulfilling it. That’s one of my favourite subversions 🙂

    • Avatar Dan J. says:

      I’m not sure that can be realistically called a subversion, at least not anymore. It’s so common that it’s pretty much become a trope in its own right.

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    Deus ex machina is never acceptable.

    • Mark, I disagree. For one thing, I never want to tell any author that something isn’t acceptable, because some writers can pull off things that other writers can’t. For another thing, I think deus ex machina *can* be used in ways where it’s almost invisible. For instance, perhaps a force of nature interrupts an attack at a crucial moment, allowing the hero/heroine to triumph over the villain. It’s not *quite* the same as a god coming down to solve everything and tie it up with a pretty bow, but it is an outside force acting on the plot to advance it in some way. As humans, we know that nature can be unpredictable, so it’s not too hard to believe that some natural force could interfere with the plot in that way. As a reader, I would go along with that.

      That said, I will confess that I tell other writers all the time, “you can get away with deus ex machina exactly one time, if that, and you probably can’t even get away with it then.” It’s something you can’t use every time you get stuck, that’s certain!

  3. Avatar Tim Greaton says:

    Hi, Mark. Though it’s hard to summarize for thousands of authors and millions of potential stories, I am always in agreement with any article that provokes contemplation of story improvement. I’ve often thought that as long as a writer seriously considers as many facets of his or her story as possible, the final choices will be high quality or at least higher quality. In short, I guess it relates back to the adage that you must know the rules before it is okay to break them. Of course, your article addresses more of a guideline, but I think the same logic follows. In my case, thoughtful fiction always rises above my off-the-cuff drafts.

    Thanks for the chance to ponder yet another dimension for my next project 🙂

  4. Avatar Tim Greaton says:

    Oops. I meant to address my response to you, Amy, but had just read your response to Mark. Absolute proof that more thinking is always needed 🙂

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