Plot Devices

What are they?

Plot devices are techniques and tricks commonly used in building the structure of a story.

Backstory The history of the character or setting prior to the book’s story beginning. It is usually told in the early stages in order to better understand the scene and character motivations.
 Chekhov’s Gun The idea that potentially dramatic details and objects within a story must be used, and to ignore them makes them frivolous. It comes from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov noting a gun placed on stage must be used.
 Cliffhanger A plot device in which a chapter, book or film finishes with an exciting or suspenseful moment left unresolved. It makes the audience want the next instalment.
 Deus Ex Machina Resolving plots suddenly by unseen or unexpected forces outwith the story. A common technique in ancient Greek when a god would suddenly intervene. Literally ‘god from outside the machine’.
 Eucatastrophe A sudden event at the climax of a story that rescues the protagonist(s) from harm and provides a happy ending. A common example is a beaten ally returning at the end to help the hero. Devised by JRR Tolkien.
 Flashback The narrative jumps to a moment in the past that is relevant to the current plot. Internal analepsis: flashback to events described earlier in the story. External analepsis: flashback to events that happened before the story.
 Foreshadowing A hint or preview of a future important plot event. Perhaps trivial at the time, it suggests and explains the reactions and skills that will be used when action becomes serious.
 Framing Device An initial story used to introduce the principle story or stories. The frame story will also reappear at the end of the main story, thus bookending the action. An example is characters meeting at a bar to retell the main story.
 MacGuffin An object or goal that the story revolves around and protagonists chase but, in itself, is irrelevant to the audience. Commonly used in thrillers. An example would be rescuing a microchip. Coined by Alfred Hitchcock.
 In Medias Res Beginning in the middle of the action, rather than building up through exposition. Often later uses flashback to explain how events got here. A form of narrative hook, it literally means ‘into the middle of things’.
 Narrative Hook To begin a story in a way that immediately captures the audience’s attention. This could be an exciting opening paragraph, intriguing opening line, immediate mystery, or hinting the ending.
 Ochi A sudden punchline delivered to end a story. It is comical and juxtaposes the previous intricate storytelling to emphasise a sudden ‘fall’. Used in Japanese rakugo, in which a storyteller sits with a fan and towel as props.
 Plot Twist A sudden and surprising change in the plot created by introducing an element completely against the audience’s expectations. Usually used at the climax or denouement, but can happen at the beginning as a hook.
 Poetic Justice Characters receive the reward or punishment their personality or actions deserve, but not caused by their personality or actions. Essentially luck or the effects of others’ actions create divine justice.
Predestination Paradox A time paradox in which future events cause events in the past, which in turn cause the events in the future, ultimately meaning it is impossible to know where the sequence of events begins. Used in science fiction.
Quibble A character fulfills the exact definitions of an agreement in order to avoid the intended meaning. Generally used when an agreement is ruining a character and the only escape is a loophole in the agreed terms.
 Red Herring An item or event deliberately placed within a story to mislead the audience. Can be to simply trick the audience, or hide actual events and therefore heighten the final revelation. The inverse of Chekhov’s Gun.
 Self-fulfilling Prophecy An unjustified prediction that actually comes true due to the prediction affecting the way a character acts. It is the psychological influence, not fate, that makes the prophecy come to fruition.
 Story within a Story A character(s) in the story tells a story, thus putting a story inside their own story. Examples include characters acting out a play, or a character reading a book. Also called a nested story.
 Ticking Clock A deadline is introduced, by which time the protagonists must complete their task or face undesirable consequences. Most commonly used in action stories to create tension and increased urgency.
 Time Loop A character repeatedly experiences the same period of time, living a moment only to have the clock reset and have to live it again. Usually the character must learn or change an element in order to escape the loop.
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