What’s the Price for That Nice Plot Device?

You’ve heard of plot devices, but do you know what they are? Are they good or bad? Can you name any? For answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right blog post.

No, wrong kind of ‘device.’
From www.snappygoat.com.

Before we can define the term ‘plot device,’ let’s review what a plot is, and how a writer develops one. A plot is a sequence of events in a story, events connected by cause and effect. The writer aims to construct this sequence such that it accomplishes at least the following goals:

  1. illustrates the human condition,
  2. introduces a conflict and depicts the protagonist striving to resolve it,
  3. grabs and sustains the reader’s attention,
  4. leaves the reader with a powerful emotion at the end, and
  5. reflects believable cause-and-effect connections.

If you’re a writer crafting your story, it can be difficult to achieve all these purposes successfully. Often a complication develops. Unlike the reader, you know the story’s end and you’re aiming for that point. You might hit a snag where the next logical event in a cause-effect chain will not result in your desired story ending. To put it another way, to get to the end you want, something illogical has to happen. Your options at this point include:

  • re-writing earlier sections to make the strange cause-effect chain believable
  • re-thinking the ending of the story
  • introducing a plot device to get past the difficulty

Often the first two options are undesirable, so that drives writers to the third—the plot device.

The ‘device’ in the term ‘plot device’ refers to its original definition of a plan, scheme, or technique, not its modern connotation of a mechanical or electronic gadget.

Here are some examples of plot devices:

  • Bogus alternatives. This one comes from the Turkey City Lexicon. Sometimes, to make the plot work, the author needs a character to take an uncharacteristic action. An inexperienced author will walk the reader through the character’s mental list of options, rationalizing why the character chooses one action and not the others. This interrupts the story’s pace, pulls the reader out of the story, and is unnecessary.
  • Deus ex machina. A surprise entity comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from a plot problem. Let’s see, Jules Verne thinks, I’ve got the title, The Mysterious Island, and I’ve got my heroic castaways who survive mostly by their wits, except sometimes they need outside help. I know! I’ll let them be aided by an unknown benefactor, later revealed to be Captain Nemo!”
  • Idiot plot. This is another one from the Turkey City Lexicon. If the writers plot problem is serious, one solution would be to set the story in the land of idiots, which would explain any unusual action taken by any character. They can all act to further the author’s plot, no matter how irrational any character’s actions seem.
  • MacGuffin. The protagonist pursues an object, believing it to be important, though (to the reader) another object could work as well. “Listen, Dashiell, I like novel, but can we change this Sicilian Vulture statuette to something else…say, a Maltese Falcon?” “Okay, sure.”
  • Plot voucher. Someone gives the protagonist an object that turns out to be the one thing needed later to get the hero out of a bad situation. “Holy plot device, Batman, why are you loading bear repellent in your utility belt?” “Better safe than sorry, Robin.” <later> “Holy Ursa Major, Batman! We’re surrounded by hungry grizzlies!” “Yes, lucky thing I happened to bring…”
  • Red herring. Anything used by the author to distract the reader’s attention away toward the unimportant and away from the important. Most frequently used in mysteries to lead the reader toward an incorrect conclusion. The term dates from the use of strong-smelling fish to divert hounds from chasing the hare. I haven’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but I understand it contains a character with an Italian name that translates as “red herring.”
  • Shoulder angel. A plot device used in visual media such as comic books, animated cartoons, or screenplays to illustrate a protagonist debating with her conscience, sometimes accompanied by a devil (temptation) on the other shoulder.

 From the tone of my post, you’re probably concluding that plot devices are bad, and it’s best not to use them. I’m not going to take that stance. Most writers try not to need them, but end up using them from time to time. The trick is to write well enough that readers get so swept up by your story that they don’t notice you’ve used a plot device.

To sum up, what is the price of that nice plot device, as I so poetically asked in the post’s title? The answer is, it’s free to use, but if you don’t use it well, readers won’t enjoy your story. Take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Do Yer Worst, Ye Scurvy, Book-Piratin’ Dogs!

You’re an inexperienced writer; you finally get a book accepted and published. Now some pirate website is giving your book away free, and paying you nothing. What do you do about it?

A modern book pirate’s treasure chest

Before I answer that, what exactly is a book pirate, and how do their sites work? A book pirate takes your ebook (or scans your print book and converts it to .pdf) and gives it away to anyone who wants to download it. They don’t pay you or your publisher. This is illegal.

Giving away the product doesn’t sound like a successful business plan, does it? They do sell advertising on those sites; that’s how they make their money. Some may not care about earning money at all; they may believe information should be free in this Age of the Internet.

When my first story was published, I set up a search engine alert to inform me when that story title was mentioned anywhere on the web, and I’ve done this for every subsequent published story. Much to my surprise, about half of these mentions turned out to be on pirate websites.

The first time, I got angry and wondered what I could do about it. There are steps you can take, but emailing notifications followed by legal warnings can get time-consuming, and may not cause the pirate to quit giving away your book.

The funniest case was when the anthology Avast, Ye Airships!, in which my story “A Clouded Affair” appeared, was pirated. Yes, a book about pirates fell victim to piracy. I wonder if the web pirates even noticed the irony themselves.

Again, how do you respond to this villainy? I know the pirates deserve to be keelhauled, whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails, and forced to walk the plank. But how do you find the low-life, hook-handed, parrot-toting rapscallions? And where do you get a fully equipped sailing ship?

In the real world, your response depends on your level of anger about piracy, your available time to send repeated e-mail warnings, your level of tolerance for frustration, and your willingness to take on a cause that (while moral and right) has only a tiny chance of succeeding.

If you’re a first-time author, the pirates may be doing you a favor. Hard to believe, I know, but follow my reasoning. At this early point in your writing adventure, exposure is more important to you than earnings. That pirate represents one more website mentioning you and your book, one more website popping up in internet searches of topics related to your book, one more website’s worth of evidence you’re an established author.

You’re still not buying that, I can tell. How about this; try the Genie Test. (I know, genies and pirates—mixing genres. Just go with it.) Author Robert Kroese introduced the Genie Test in a guest-post on Joanna Penn’s website. Suppose you rub a magic lamp and a Genie materializes. (I’m visualizing Barbara Eden.) She offers to download your ebook on one million e-readers, but you won’t earn a cent. She’s ready to cross her arms and nod, making the magic happen. Do you stop her, or let her do it?

Think of it—a million Kindles, Nooks, etc., all containing your book. If a small fraction of those people read your book, and a small fraction of them enjoy it enough to read more, that’s still a sizable following, a readership. Isn’t that what you really wanted? Thanks, Jeannie!

I’m not defending book piracy. It’s theft. It’s illegal. It ought to end. (Hey, Jeannie, are you still there? Why not magically end all book piracy while you’re at it?) I’m just suggesting, on your prioritized list of things to fret about, book piracy ought to move down a few places, maybe just above your fears about planet-ending meteor strikes, sharknadoes, and the zombie apocalypse.

That’s why I say, do yer darndest, ye snivellin’ pack o’ book-stealin,’ grog-swillin’ pirates. Ye ain’t gonna stir one hair on the head o’—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Are Your Stories Antifragile?

That’s no typo in this post’s title. Antifragility is a thing, and today I’m discussing the concept as it applies to fictional stories.

In his book Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks if there is an antonym of the word “fragile.” If there were such an adjective, he’d say it describes things that become stronger when stressed.

He doesn’t mean words like ‘robust,’ ‘tough,’ or ‘resilient.’ Those words describe things that sustain shocks without damage. He wants to describe things that improve their resistance to stress by being stressed. Lacking a ready word, he coined the term ‘antifragile.’

Can a story be antifragile? To answer that, we should consider the things that impose stresses on stories. These include criticism in negative reviews and mocking satire.

What would it mean for a story to become stronger? If it meant that the story became more widely read, more popular, with increased sales, then an antifragile story would be one that suffers negative reviews or even satire and yet its sales increase.

Are there any such stories? If I recall correctly, Nassim Taleb offered the more popular plays of William Shakespeare as examples. For four centuries, those plays have endured bad reviews and been mocked, but they are performed far more often and in more languages and formats than they were in Shakespeare’s time.

From an author’s point of view, antifragility seems like a wonderful property for a story to have, especially the increasing sales part, right? If you wanted to write an antifragile story, and perhaps lacked the skill of Shakespeare, how would you go about it? Are there tangible attributes of such stories? Is there a checklist to follow?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no checklist. Further, the only authors who really understand what it takes to make a story antifragile…well, they’re dead. That’s because stories don’t really demonstrate that property to the greatest extent while the author is alive.

Still, being me, I’ll take a crack at it, because I like a challenge. Here is my proposed checklist for making your stories antifragile:

  1. Create complex and compelling characters. They need to seem real, with strong emotions and motivations, with goals to attain, with difficult inner problems to surmount, and with bedeviling decisions to make.
  2. Appeal to every reader. That may be impossible to achieve in a single story, but in your body of work you should include characters of many types, in diverse settings. Include rich and poor, young and old, introvert and extrovert, city and country, etc.
  3. Explore the eternal truths about the human condition. You know many of these eternal truths—we’re born, we grow up, we have parents, we learn to relate to others and even fall in love, we have disagreements and conflicts with others, we become curious about the nature of our world, we deteriorate with age, and we die. When I say to ‘explore’ these truths, I don’t mean to write a philosophy book. Write a fictional story that entertains, but causes readers to ponder those deeper truths after reading it.
  4. Execute your story with style, flair, and creativity. Yeah, right. Simply do that. This one is hard to implement, but I’ll suggest some thoughts. Look for ways to turn a phrase well. Create a new word that English lacks but needs. Write in a manner that stands out, such that readers could identify your unique voice from a couple of paragraphs chosen randomly from your stories.

Okay, it’s not really a checklist where you mark off each item in turn: done, done, done. It’s more of a guideline with concepts to aim for. Who knows if it’s even accurate? After all, I’m not dead yet (as I write this), so I can’t possibly know.

Still, it’s intriguing to think that one day, readers may consider your stories to be antifragile, and when scholars trace it back, they’ll discover you learned how to do it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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