What are the best plot devices that screenwriters can use to make their cinematic story more intriguing?
A plot device is best defined as any technique in a narrative used to move the plot forward.
A well-conceived plot device — one that emerges from the concept, genre, story, or characters — can drive your plot forward and enhance your story and characterization.
While plot devices may initially be thought of as clichés or tropes, they are actually quite effective as a screenwriting tool. Even the best of screenplays and films utilize them. But the secret is to craft and utilize them well.
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Here are seventeen of the best plot devices that can elevate your story.
Beware Spoilers for Mission Impossible II, The Twilight Zone: The Man in the Bottle, The Prestige, and The Usual Suspects (and minor spoilers for Die Hard and Speed)!
Most prevalent in mysteries and the subgenre of whodunits, the alibi is an explanation for how a character could not have committed the crime in question. This allows you to point the guilt towards a specific character, only to reveal that they have an alibi that will shift the plot into a different direction.
You can also play with this alibi with fakes and misleads.
It can be used in courtroom dramas, mysteries, thrillers, and even comedies.
Big Dumb Object
Originally a term that was used as a joke within the book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction — and also attributed to reviewer Roz Kaveney — the Big Dumb Object refers to a plot device that entails any mysterious object with immense power — usually of unknown or extraterrestrial origin. There is usually an intense wonder about its origin and power.
The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a perfect example.
The compelling factor of using this plot device is that it drives the intrigue throughout the whole story.
Best defined as an ending to an act, chapter, serial, or novel that leaves the audience in suspense with an unresolved and often shocking plot point, the cliffhanger is best reserved for serials and television episodes.
Writers can use them creatively within feature film screenplays with perfect placement and complimentary story editing.
You can have a character fall from a building, only to leave them dangling from the edge as their grip slips.
You can then cut away from that scene to another that features a different character. This leaves us wondering what’s about to happen to the character that was left dangling from the building.
A protagonist or another sympathetic character is captured by a villain who attempts to use an elaborate and often sadistic method of murder. This increases tension as we watch the character try to escape. It also offers a moment for exposition as the villain reveals key plot details.
Mission: Impossible movies are notorious for using disguises as a plot device for twists and turns within the story. Disguises can hide the true identity of a killer, protect the protagonist from harm, or offer a reveal within the climax of the story.
But beware of using a disguise as a cheat without any plant, foreshadowing, or explanation.
A character that apparently dies, only to later be revealed alive at a pivotal moment within the screenplay. While often a trope within mystery and horror movies, if utilized well it can be quite a surprise for the reader or audience — as long as the explanation makes sense and isn’t too far-fetched.
False endings offer the writer the ability to tease the reader or audience into thinking that the story has come to a close, only to shatter that notion with an additional ending that is even better.
This plot device can be used for scares, thrills, or enhanced mystery reveals.
Speed gave us somewhat of a false ending.
Only to continue the story on.
Die Hard did the same thing, albeit with a briefer second ending.
Flashbacks can be used to recount events that happened prior to the story’s current events and can also be utilized to fill in crucial backstory. While this type of plot device is often frowned upon, it can be very effective when crafted well.
An audiovisual cue within a screenplay that is used to bring some object or situation to the attention of viewers. Later on within the script, the object or situation will be referred to once again, somehow advancing the plot forward as most plot devices should.
This plot device has been utilized in cinematic storytelling for decades. It’s what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a MacGuffin — a goal, desired object, or any other motivator that the protagonist (and often the antagonist as well) is either tasked with pursuing, or drawn to pursuing for whatever reasons.
It’s a motivating element that exists only to drive the plot and is usually the cause and effect of each character’s conflict that they are dealing with throughout the story.
Read ScreenCraft’s How Screenwriters Can Master the MacGuffin!
Magnetic Plot Device
An object, person, or piece of information is something that the antagonist wants, needs, or is attracted by.
Dana’s apartment complex in Ghostbusters.
John Connor in (most of) the Terminator films.
The Allspark in the Transformers movies.
This type of plot device can create seemingly insurmountable conflict for the protagonist. And in storytelling, conflict is everything.
Plants and Payoffs
Perhaps the best plot devices that screenwriters can use. Plants and payoffs are cinematic examples of foreshadowing. You plant images, objects, or information throughout your story and later create payoffs that explain why those elements were present in the first place.
Originally defined by Nick Lowe, a plot voucher is an object given to a character before they encounter an obstacle that requires the use of that object.
A perfect example would be a character that is given a metal flask, only to later have that flask stop a bullet that was shot at that character.
This device originated from the dramatic principle called Chekhov’s Gun, which stipulated that every element within a story must be necessary to the story. And all irrelevant elements should be removed.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there,” Antov Chekhov once wrote.
A quibble is a plot device that is used to fulfill the exact verbal conditions of an agreement in order to avoid the intended meaning. Quibbles are used in legal bargains and especially in fantasy stories that contain a magically enforced one.
A Deal with the Devil can contain clauses that allow the devil to quibble over what he grants. And sometimes the protagonist finds a quibble to escape the bargain.
One of the best examples is present within The Twilight Zone episode The Man in the Bottle. A genie is freed from a bottle and grants a couple four wishes with the warning that every wish will have consequences. The man wishes to be in a position of great power, the leader of a modern and powerful country who cannot be voted out of office. The genie turns him into Adolf Hitler during his final days in World War II.
The Red Herring
The red herring is used to divert the audience’s attention away from something significant within the plot.
You’ll see this type of plot device in mysteries, thrillers, horror stories, and crime stories.
The subgenre of the mystery — the whodunit — utilizes multiple red herrings so that the audience is tricked into thinking that a given character is the murderer when it is actually another character.
It’s best to use multiple red herrings throughout any story, instead of a single one. A single red herring risks the chance of the audience feeling cheated. But multiple red herrings showcase many twists and turns.
Ticking Time Bomb
A literal or figurative ticking time bomb can drive the narrative and create urgency and tension within the story.
Twins or doppelgangers have been used as an effective plot device in movies and television. A protagonist has a twin or doppelganger that is revealed as an ally or enemy.
While it can seem like a cheat within many stories, if you use this plot device creatively you can redefine its use.
These are just a few plot devices that you can use to make your stories even better. They can be big or small, but they must be used wisely.
What other plot devices did we miss?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies