For many of us, starting a novel is easy. Writing the closing chapter and tying up all the loose ends often comes naturally as well. But getting your characters from the opening to the end in a way that is believable and keeps readers' attention—ah, that's the challenging part, and that's where plot devices come in.
Plot devices are story tools that can help us tell ours more effectively, with more pop, zip, emotion and motivation. The tools I list below have been used—and often abused—in endless variations for as long as people have been telling stories. The trick is to employ a fresh spin, to avoid having it come across as cliche.
A clock is nothing more than a deadline, a time limit. Something bad will happen unless the money (or whatever) is delivered by this time. Or, the mortgage has to be paid up by 1 p.m. tomorrow or they'll foreclose. Or, if the ransom isn't paid at a certain hour, the kidnap victim is going to be killed.
It's tried, true, often hackneyed, but it works. While your clock must sometimes be disguised to avoid being flagged as a cliche, it can nonetheless add needed urgency and/or suspense to your story and angst for your characters, neither of which has a downside.
The maguffin is the object of great value that almost everybody in the story is after. Sometimes it's the secret plans. Sometimes it's the computer disk. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, the maguffin is the falcon itself—a legendary jewel-encrusted golden statuette.
Sometimes, the maguffin is a beautiful woman, desired by two men who want her enough to kill for her. For the device to work at its best, the woman is usually untrustworthy and always to die for.
A bit of advice in choosing a maguffin: Nothing becomes dated more quickly than the latest high-tech item or trend. It'll be yesterday's news long before you finish the novel.
For decades, the meet-cute (sometimes referred to as "cute-meet") has been all but a required ingredient of Hollywood's romantic comedies and also is used in many of today's mainstream novels. It's that first meeting, the scene where he accidentally spills his tray of food on her expensive gown, where she is demonstrating her tennis forehand and inadvertently knocks him in the head, or where one of them falls into the swimming pool. Usually, one's wild about the other, but the feeling isn't reciprocated, or neither likes the other—until fate or the plotting of friends brings them together again and shows them the light. It endures because, when well executed, it can very effectively set the tone for one's story.
Call it foreshadowing or call it platforming as TV writers do, call it a technique or call it a device, this is an important element of your book. It's about laying in the hint of an event to come, a twist, a clue, a character nuance. It's about planting something physical, verbal or descriptive at one or more points in your story that will pay off later. Or, it's laying the groundwork so that when a certain event occurs, it won't seem too out of character or place, or provide the wrong kind of surprise—the kind that can cause one's reader to close the book disappointed or angry.
You need not necessarily worry about platforming when you're writing or outlining Page 1. Often it is accomplished deep into the work, when the writer realizes the need to set up an action by going back to earlier scenes and plugging in related references or incidents.
In my novel, The Sixteenth Man, the fact that protagonist Charlie Callan was a former minor league pitcher whose arm had gone dead played a key part in the narrative and in the central mystery. But until I was nearing the end of my outline, I didn't realize just how important it was. I had to go back through the story and insert moments that emphasized his passion for baseball, his experiences as a player.
In mystery writing in particular, starting with the solution and working backward is a common writing approach. When I was writing for TV mysteries such as Murder, She Wrote, once we had the premise for the show, we almost invariably worked backward from the "gotcha" scene. This meant laying in the clues, the evidence, the murderer's slip-ups (if any) and the detective's observations that eventually led to the real killer. In my own scripts, however, I seldom decided who the murderer was until I had almost finished the outline. Occasionally, I'd reject the least likely character, figuring the viewers already had zeroed in on that ploy, and opt for another.
5. Deus ex machina
This is Latin for "god from a machine." In ancient Greek and Roman drama, a deity was brought onstage to resolve a difficult situation. In modern times, the device often appears as an improbable character or happening that accomplishes the same thing. Or, short of resolution, the device may alter the balance of the situation—the sudden storm that results in a flood or loss of electric power, the unexpected earthquake. The term also describes an elaborately devised event such as the diabolically contrived murder.
For my taste, the deus ex machina should be subtly platformed long before its appearance, so that while its ultimate appearance comes as a surprise, readers will feel it should have been expected.
6. Parallel action
In movies and television, parallel action is a way of describing the "meanwhile" scenes. Stephen J. Cannell, one of the best writers in television (creator of The Rockford Files and other shows) and a published novelist, used to have a sign on the wall above his desk that read: WHAT ARE THE BAD GUYS DOING?
In a good action-adventure piece for television or in a novel, it's usually best to alternate between the hero's moves and those of the bad guys, either from scene to scene or chapter to chapter. In television, you'll almost never see two scenes in a row that do not include your star, your protagonist. But you've got to keep the opposition alive. What clever stuff are they plotting? What moves and countermoves? How are they planning to achieve their ends while preventing your protagonist from reaching his or her goals?
The penny-drop is the point when something significant dawns on one of your characters—that moment-of-realization (as in the solution to the puzzle or the solution to how to reach the solution).
Sometimes the penny-drop is triggered by something seen or heard. It's a word or phrase—a throwaway line uttered by one character that inadvertently causes the other to be reminded of a seemingly unrelated event, thought or observation. Or, it's a piece of information that completes an equation, that causes certain earlier events or facts to connect, to suddenly make sense.
In mysteries, the penny-drop comes when the sleuth hears, sees, tastes, smells, touches or otherwise experiences something that when combined (usually mentally) with a fact or facts gleaned earlier tells the detective that til now, everyone has been following false leads. Suddenly, the protagonist has it figured out—if not all of it, most of it—and is off and running, leaving the other characters temporarily mystified.
As with other such devices it's important that if the penny-drop is prompted by some fortuitous accident or coincidence, the protagonist earned most of the other elements of the equation as the result of his or her doing.
But if it's your bad guy putting it together (for presumably evil purposes), this is not necessarily a requirement. For an antagonist to stumble upon or otherwise fortuitously acquire pieces of the puzzle is sometimes OK, though solving it through intellect and/or cleverness means he is smarter and consequently a more formidable opponent for your put-upon protagonist.
Chance meetings or observations, inadvertently overheard information, the photograph or TV news clip that happens to include something significant yet not central to the subject. Coincidence can be the accidental acquisition of a maguffin or other key element. It can be the telltale clue fortuitously eyeballed by the sleuth.
Though in real life coincidences do occur, in fiction the pivotal kind that help protagonists or antagonists solve their weightier problems have acquired a rather bad name. But employed very selectively, they can be extremely useful tools. Sometimes, what appears to be a coincidence—two people showing up at the same place at the same moment—can have its curse reduced by the reasons the situation happened.
There are other plot devices, and further spins on those I've described. I hope you'll be more conscious of them now in mat-erial that you read or see so you'll more fully understand their usefulness in that all-important goal for us as writers: holding on to our readers!
This article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.