Most screenplays use some form of a plot device. But a bad plot device can ruin an otherwise acceptable screenplay, so screenwriters must be careful to craft storytelling devices in a way that advances and augments their narrative.
“The Usual Suspects” Courtesy Gramercy Pictures
A plot device is a narrative technique that progresses the plot in some form. It can be an object, character, or situation. When well-crafted, such as the story-within-a-story hunt for the nefarious Keyser Söze in “The Usual Suspects,” a plot device helps intrigue and entice the audience. When it seems hokey or unbelievable, such as the discovery of a secret twin in a soap opera, it can cause viewers to lose interest.
“Finding Nemo” Courtesy Pixar
Some of the more popular plot devices, with examples from film and TV, include:
Big Dumb Object: Used almost exclusively in science fiction, the Big Dumb Object is a monolithic, otherworldly object that evokes a sense of mystery and wonder in characters. To use a BDO effectively in a script, try to create a spectacle around its appearance and imbue it with a sense of majesty, mystery, and eeriness. Be sure to provide at least a hint at the reason for the BDO to avoid what some call “idea crack”: an impossible Gordian knot of infinite possibilities with no resolution.
- Big Dumb Object example: A huge, impenetrable dome descends on the town of Chester’s Mill in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome.” Its appearance causes town residents to speculate furiously about the dome’s source and meaning.
Cliffhanger: The cliffhanger leaves the audience wanting more by withholding the conclusion to a dilemma or question until a later date. Cliffhangers have been a staple for as long as serialized storytelling has existed, such as when the Victorian-era novels of Charles Dickens were released in chapters. The term itself came to prominence thanks to author Thomas Hardy’s “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” when one of its installments left the main character quite literally hanging from a cliff.
To write your own strong cliffhanger, leave your protagonist in a seemingly inescapable or unfathomable situation, forcing the audience to guess how it could possibly be resolved. Start by considering all the major questions the viewer will ask themselves between the cliffhanger and its resolution. How will the hero survive? Who died in that tragic accident? Will the estranged couple get back together?
- Cliffhanger example: The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father in “The Empire Strikes Back” is a cliffhanger that left audiences desperate for a follow-up for three years until “Return of the Jedi.”
Deus ex machina: This plot device, which translates to “god from the machine,” sees a seemingly impossible situation suddenly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely intervention. The deus ex machina plot device is often considered lazy screenwriting—especially if it’s the answer to a long-awaited cliffhanger. However, it can work effectively in a screenplay if used for comedic effect or if it retroactively makes sense to your audience through the use of foreshadowing.
- Deus ex machina example (spoilers ahead): This phenomenon takes place when, out of nowhere, the giant eagles pick up Sam and Frodo from certain death in the lava fields of Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
Flashback: The flashback depicts events that happened before the narrative’s current timeline, and it is often used to provide backstory about motivations and mindset. A good flashback can be kicked off by a trigger that causes the memory to emerge. Ensure that your flashbacks add value to the story by filling in the blanks of your characters’ personality and motivations—or subverting them. Maybe your villain is tormented by their tragic childhood, or a hero does good deeds to make up for an unforgivable past deed.
- Flashback example: “Orange Is the New Black” uses flashbacks to provide character backstories and show why they were driven to criminal behavior.
Love triangle: The classic love triangle sees a character forced to choose between two competing romantic suitors. Because the love triangle is inherently unstable, it creates tension and conflict, which drives the plot forward. To maximize that conflict, craft compelling reasons why either suitor could be the correct endgame—but also ensure they themselves are as opposite from each other as possible.
- Love triangle example: In “The Hunger Games,” the love triangle between Katniss, her aggressive friend Gale, and sweet baker Peeta feels as important to the story as the fight against Capitol greed and corruption.
MacGuffin: Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is an object or objective that is vital solely because it drives the action and plot, while its actual importance remains a mystery or nonfactor. The MacGuffin doesn’t need to feel important to the audience, but it absolutely must be important to your characters. In “Pulp Fiction,” we never see what’s inside the briefcase that causes so much mayhem. In Hitchcock’s own “The 39 Steps,” a complex spy thriller erupts around plans for a “silent airplane engine” that never really factor into the plot.
- MacGuffin example: “The Big Lebowski” uses a MacGuffin in its iconic rug that “really tied the room together.” In the grand scheme of things, the rug really is just a rug, but it’s the catalyst that leads The Dude to a series of surreal criminal interactions.
Plant and payoff: If you want to leave your audience satisfied, little achieves the feeling as much as the plant and payoff. Like foreshadowing in literature, this device provides a hint about something to come. To incorporate this technique in your script, consider any twists, turns, and reveals you plan to include at the end. Then think about ways that you can subtly plant an event, object, or character trait early on that hints at these twists, turns, and reveals. Make your payoff satisfying by having it reveal something integral to the story or its characters that hearkens back to the plant. Let your writing be guided by the principle of Chekhov’s gun: “If in Act 1 you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” Essentially, make every detail matter by including a payoff for every idea you plant.
- Plant and payoff example (spoilers ahead): In “Signs,” seeds are planted throughout the narrative, each with their own satisfying payoff. The biggest plant in the film is the recursive image of half-filled water glasses. One of the characters in the alien invasion sci-fi film is concerned about germs, so she leaves her water cups around the house when she fears that one has been contaminated. This plant, initially presented as an inconsequential quirk, has a massive payoff when it turns out that the aliens invading Earth are adverse to water. The half-filled glasses of water end up saving the protagonists from certain doom.
Quest: The quest stems from the exact opposite of a MacGuffin—your protagonist leaves the comfort of their status quo to obtain a specific object or goal. All of the dramatic scenarios that follow stem from the need or desire to find that object. As such, the audience needs to care about the final target.
- Quest example: In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin must confront dangerous sharks and jellyfish—and put up with Dory, a new, oft-annoying friend with short-term amnesia—in search of his missing son, Nemo.
Red herring: The red herring is a false clue that purposely misleads the audience to an incorrect assumption. It’s the cinematic version of sleight-of-hand; you make the viewer look at one hand while you perform a trick with the other. A good red herring must be plausible so the audience believes it until the twist. When crafting your own, consider a version of your story where the red herring is true, and ask if it’d still make sense. You want the truth to be clear upon the big reveal, not for viewers to feel as though they’ve been deceived.
- Red herring example (spoilers ahead): In “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the character Sirius Black functions as a red herring throughout most of the film. The main characters—and thus also the audience—believe that escaped prisoner Sirius Black is a dangerous villain, when in fact the real villain is the traitorous Peter Pettigrew.
Ticking clock: Tensions are raised as a deadline fast approaches in the ticking clock device. A captivating ticking clock creates a real threat—with a definitive deadline—for the protagonist. Ratchet up the pressure by showing how much your protagonist will lose if they fail to beat the clock, and remember that tighter deadlines mean increased tension. Establish your deadline early in the story—if your protagonist has only a certain amount of time to complete their goal, that tension will hang over every action that follows.
- Ticking clock example: “Armageddon” uses the device to build tension as a team of deep core oil drillers go to space to drill and bomb an asteroid that otherwise will hit and destroy Earth in only 18 days.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” Courtesy New Line Cinema
Whatever plot device you choose to incorporate in your screenplay, ensure that:
1. Your storytelling is strong: The plot device should augment an already compelling narrative. Although some viewers decry the use of the giant eagles deus ex machina plot device in “The Lord of the Rings,” others staunchly defend it, since the rest of the narrative crafts a complex, intricate storyworld.
2. You avoid cliches: Plot devices that have become narrative tropes usually don’t make for good storytelling. Avoid cliches such as the “it was all a dream” plot device—unless your writing is extremely nuanced, or you’re playing with the conventions of the trope, such as in the complex dreamscape from “Inception.”
3. The plot device propels the story: A plot device is useless unless it in some way moves the narrative forward. Ensure that your inclusion of a plot device is integral to the story’s advancement by considering what would happen if you removed it from the narrative.
4. The plot device fits the storyworld: Finally, your plot device must fit the narratology of the story; put simply, the story must make sense. Suddenly revealing a supernatural ability when there has been no sign that it’s a possibility in your storyworld will frustrate your viewers. However, if you drop hints that imply the ability’s place in your narrative, then the plot device functions as a suitable twist.
Play around with different plot devices while writing your screenplay to see which one fits best with the narrative. Once you’ve chosen one (or several), refine it until it feels like an organic, integral story component.