Plot Devices and Diversions
Plot devices (also called plot mechanisms) are used to move the plot forward in a story. They may have a direct bearing on the outcome, such as finding the secret code to decipher a mysterious message that will save the world. Or just appear like a ghost to divert your attention.
Authors should work to make sure their plot devices are not contrived. Doing so may insult or irritate a reader as it is obvious and tiresome. Case in point: The story where there is a legendary ring and a group of people set out on a quest to find the ring. The story proceeds with the journey, the characters. The ring means virtually nothing to the story. It is a prop. It could be replaced with any other object. Alfred Hitchcock called this device a ‘McGuffin’.
Tolkien and Potter
Now in Lord of the Rings (All hail Tolkien), the ring is essential to the story. The entire story revolves around the power of the ring, what must be done with the ring, who stands in the way of destroying the ring. The ring is like a character in the story. That is a plot device done right.
Harry Potter books had an object at the core of most of the books. And they all ended up being horcruxes (items instilled with bits of Voldemort’s being) Harry ended up using to defeat Voldemort. This type of plot device had to be woven into each book. Individually they didn’t appear to be life-shattering, but when you realized their ultimate importance you reel from the idea it was so well done.
Miracles and Red Herrings
Try to avoid obvious plot devices. Deux ex machina describes the concept that suddenly a god descends, a fairy godmother waves her wand, the hero gets a superpower…all to bring the story to a comfortable, happy little ending without any background material in the story to back it up. Miracles do happen but they do not make good plot devices.
Red Herrings are often used in mysteries, crime or horror to divert the attention away from the real culprit. I’ve been watching old episodes of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ recently. I’ve realized that the one person who is introduced early but not much attention is given to is usually the murderer. But there are usually at least three people who could have done it…but it isn’t them. At the end there is a plausible explanation given and some vague link to earlier in the show. It worked. The show was on for years.
The character that suddenly appears, gives vital information, and disappears to never be seen again is a poor plot device. Star Trek’s Universal Translator that turns all alien languages to English is a plot device to move the story along without having to explain a language barrier…or all aliens speak English.. Lord of the Rings wizard, Gandalf, and his amazing ability to have a spell for any occasion is a plot device much like Deux ex machina in that it is…well…magic.
The Dangler is an exceptionally irritating plot device. Backstories are created for several characters, all with possible plot lines, then dropped for no apparent reason. The reader begins to care about a particular character, hoping to find out more about them and their future endeavors but are left to hang as the character is not developed.
Neville Saves the Day
Plot devices can be and are successfully utilized in a story, but a great plot device is often unnoticed until revealed at the end. Neville Longbottom springs to mind. We know his backstory, saw him in every book. He helped to move the story forward. It wasn’t until the end of the books that he takes a stand against Voldemort, sword of Gryffindor in hand. We see him as what he is…a hero…one of many willing to give their lives to defeat Voldemort.
So keep your plot devices in mind and make sure they enhance your story instead of irritating your reader. Put thought into them, weave them in to the story. Leaving your reader disappointed is a mortal writer sin.