Utilize plot device to move story forward

If uncertain how to advance your story, you may want to employ a plot device. Also known as a plot mechanism, plot devices are any element that moves a story forward. For example, if the main character must locate a magical orb that will give him the power to stop an malevolent force from taking over the kingdom, the plot focuses on that search. The search is a plot device.

Authors always must be careful when using a plot device, however. Most have been overdone and even oversatirized. Except to children who are encountering the plot device for the first time, the story won’t appear original. In addition, never use a contrived plot device. Doing so will appear arbitrary to the reader because it undercuts their suspension of disbelief, for the story won’t appear as if it actually could occur in real life (or even in a fantasy-based world).

Some common kinds of plot devices include:
• Macguffin – The story focuses on the protagonist seeking an object (“the Macguffin”); what exactly is the object is irrelevant, and at best is vaguely referred to, such as “the papers” in a spy thriller or “the necklace” in a crime tale.
• Plot coupon – Closely related to (and sometimes) a Macguffin, the story focuses on an object that the protagonist must obtain so he has the means to resolve the story’s problem, such as a key that opens a magical box in a fantasy novel.
• Shoulder angel/shoulder devil – In this device, an angel sits on one shoulder and a devil on the other to argue the good and bad sides of a character’s inner conflict. Avoid using this device unless you want your writing to appear hackneyed.
• Red herring – Clues are provided to divert the reader’s attention from the real cause of a problem or from the guilty party. This is commonly used mystery, crime and horror tales.
• Deus ex machina – This occurs when an improbable event occurs that helps resolve an apparently hopeless situation. The ancient Greeks often used this by having a god descend from the heavens to put an end to the matter. Avoid using this device as well.
• Plot voucher – When an object is given to a character that he later uses to achieve his goal, a plot voucher is being employed. A good example are the gizmos that Q supplies to James Bond.

While many of the above are cliché, sometimes they also are necessary to the genre. A detective story, for example, would be sorely lacking if a red herring were not used.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.