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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Dumped in the Middle of the Road

You’re reading along down the story highway, racing through action scenes, taking the dialogue curves at a good clip, the wind of the story’s world in your hair. All of a sudden, a truck up ahead upends its load and a pile of text pours onto the pavement, right in your path.

You’ve been stalled by an infodump.


You come to a stop to decide what to do. You could plow right through it at slow speed, but you hate that. You could drive around, avoiding it entirely, but some of that text might be necessary to understand the story. If you’re in an angry mood, you could forget the whole book and move on.

An Infodump is one of the Turkey City Lexicon terms. It refers to a passage of text used to explain things and give background information to the reader. It can be one paragraph, or go on for several pages. It’s most common in science fiction and fantasy, where the story’s world is unlike our own, and you need to immerse the reader in it.

From a writer’s perspective, it seems so necessary to convey that information. The reader needs to understand certain things so later events in the story make sense. Many of the great writers of the past used infodumps; Herman Melville spent whole chapters that way, and it hasn’t hurt his sales. Oh, perhaps the writer could think of clever ways to work the information into the story, but who has time for that?

Better make time, you Twenty-First Century Writer, because readers these days don’t want to slow down and plow through your dump.

Here are some techniques:

  1. Delete it. What does that info add to your story, anyway? Do readers really need to know it? Are you dumping that load to help reads understand, or to show off your research or add credibility? If you can delete it, do so. If you can delete most of it, do that, and use other techniques to convey the rest.
  1. Work it into dialogue. Readers speed through your characters’ dialogue pretty fast, so inserting some of your infodump into their speech is one way to avoid slowing readers down. Caution: there’s danger here. You must not swerve into the As You Know, Bob lane. Make sure the dialogue is realistic as well as explanatory.
  1. Work it into the action. By ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean fight scenes or car chases, but any passages where characters are doing things, moving about, or actively interacting with their environment or each other. It’s characterized by action verbs. It can be interspersed with dialogue, and often serves as a ‘dialogue tag,’ letting the reader know which character is speaking.
  1. Make it entertaining. If you can turn those smelly tons of interfering text into pure, golden fun, readers will actually enjoy the interruption. By ‘entertaining,’ I don’t necessarily mean funny, but humor is a great way to accomplish this, if you can pull it off. This method calls for considerable creativity and skill.
  1. Make it short. As a last resort, keep the infodump, but reduce its length. Readers may forgive a short, explanatory passage here and there.

I struggle with infodumps in my fiction, but it’s important to eliminate them where possible. Dump trucks are fine in real life, but when they drop their load in the middle of your story’s road, it really ticks off your readers. Not good.

Doing my part to beautify the nation’s literary highways and byways, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Turkey City Lexicon

In any specific human endeavor involving more than one person, the people involved soon find themselves repeating the same phrases over and over.  It’s inevitable they should seek some shorthand way to avoid that.  So they develop jargon, specialized terminology suited to their activity.

Turkey City LexiconSome time ago, in science fiction writing workshops, the participants worked out a vocabulary of writing terms called the Turkey City Lexicon (TCL).  There is no authoritative source for the TCL, nor is it copyrighted.  It’s available on many websites; just search for “turkey city lexicon.”

I won’t reiterate the list here.  My purpose is just to introduce it to you and comment on its usefulness to me.  I encourage you to search for and read through the list, then come back to finish reading my blog entry.  Several of the items are humorous to read through.

A few TCL terms are more applicable to science fiction (The Jar of Tang, Abbess Phone Home, Reinventing the Wheel, and Space Western), but the vast majority of the terms are applicable across all fiction genres.  TCL might be useful to you even if you don’t write SF.

A number of the terms are disconcerting for me to read through since I’ve committed these errors before.  These include Burly Detective Syndrome, You Can’t Fire Me–I Quit, Fuzz, and Bogus Alternatives.

But that gets right to the value of this list.  Most of the terms describe deficiencies common to beginning level writing.  Worse, they describe failings even experienced writers can succumb to, like a bad habit.  Even just reading through the list periodically can refresh your resolve to avoid the bad habits.

I’ve found it vital to subject my writing to the crucible of my critique group just so they can identify faults I don’t see.  Once you’ve been accused of any of the items in the TCL, chances are you’ll hear that accusatory voice again in your head while editing all subsequent stories.  Thus will your writing improve.

My critique group has found three TCL terms to be the most useful—Infodump, As You Know Bob, and Telling Not Showing.  I’m not sure why those three dominate, but they do, at least for us.

Do any of the TCL items ring embarrassingly true for you as you think over your own writing?  Are there other fiction writing failings that should be recognized by the TCL but aren’t yet?  If so, leave a comment for me and let me know.  On a mission to improve own writing and that of others, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe


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December 23, 2012Permalink

As You Know, Bob…

Perhaps your name isn’t Bob, but this post could still be for you, if you’re a beginning fiction writer.  One of the difficult parts of writing is creating believable dialogue, and one of the easy traps to fall into is called As You Know, Bob, or AYKB.

It stems from the writer’s need to convey information about the world of the story to readers who don’t know it yet.  Dialogue between story characters might seem like the perfect opportunity to convey the information, since dialogue stands out more than long, narrative paragraphs.  Trouble is, the characters are already in the story’s world, and already know about it.

Advertisers fall prey to AYKB too, often in radio ads.  Frequently you hear ads like this:

“I really enjoy Company XYZ.  Their product is superior to all competitors.”

“Yes, and I also like their friendly, knowledgeable staff.”

“And how about XYZ’s convenient location, right downtown at the corner of A Street and B Avenue?”

Advertisers have a limited time to convey information, and they know we pay attention to conversations more than we do to a single, blabbing announcer.  Problem is, the conversation above is just plain stupid.  People don’t talk that way.  In fact, we listeners often feel so insulted by such ads that we start to wonder if Company XYZ’s product can be any good if their ads are so terrible.

The same situation applies to your fiction writing.  Readers will be turned off if your characters talk like that; there’s plenty of good fiction by other writers they could be reading.

How do you avoid the AYKB problem in your writing, especially since it’s such an easy trap?  Review your character’s dialogue and ask yourself if that’s something someone already in the story’s world would say.  Is it realistic and believable?  Get inside your character’s head and cut the dialogue down to only what the characters would really say.

Of course, you still have the information to convey.  The best way to do that is bit by bit, with small amounts of narration or (better) action accompanying the dialogue.  Use the minimum amount necessary for the reader to understand the world of the story.  You’d be surprised how fast the reader will catch up and understand the world of the story with only teaspoonfuls of information sprinkled in from time to time.

AYKB is a well-known writing problem, and is part of a lexicon of writing problems known as the Turkey City Lexicon.  If you search you’ll find several listings and explanations of the many entries in the lexicon.

Good luck in your efforts to strengthen the dialogue in your writing.  And I can’t resist closing by saying:  As you know, Bob, I’m —

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 16, 2011Permalink