Plotting up loose ends using plot devices and other tools.
by Aaliya Shah
When we sing a song, the lyrics and the melody flow together so well we almost feel like they are one. Later remember that two different elements come together with a lot of effort and time. Just like that, coming up with words to tell a story, especially one that makes sense, is tough. Imagine a scenario, a day in the life of an up and coming author, working on their next book.
After creating a comfortable work environment, with the right ambience and a distraction-free clean desk. They open their laptop, pull up a word document and get to work. At least that’s what we think. As a writer myself, countless times, I have just stared at the blank screen, sighing and trying to wreck my brain to give me an idea.
Whether you’re pantser or a plotter, let’s be honest, coming up with a plot and working out the details is hard work. In fact, for a lot of authors, overcoming writer’s block is a constant and genuine struggle. Sometimes the best ideas come to you at the vaguest times but most of the time you have to stare for hours just to not write a word because fleshing out the details becomes a much bigger task.
Neil Gaiman, when asked where he gets his ideas from stated that at first, he used to give (semi) funny answers but as he got tired of those and he told them the truth of how he makes them upright from his head, they assume he’s hiding a big secret. Finding ideas isn't the hard part, turning them into readable stories, there’s your headache.
So what is a plot? It’s what a story is based on and built on. A good plot has one element or event that the whole story revolves around. Now, this event has to be unravelled as the plot progresses. Every aspect of the plot has to lead up to that event and solve the question. The moments that influence the plots usually range from experiences that the writers have had, sometimes dreams inspire us or you could be a pantser, write whatever comes to your mind when you have an idea, letting yourself be guided only by the extent of their imagination.
There are methods, called plot devices, that writers usually refer to when writing their story to make sense of all their ideas.
A plot device is a writing tool that writers use in their plots, a rough example of this is how Ruskin Bond uses visualization of his characters and their story to help him get over writer’s block. When used appropriately, it helps move the story forward as well as provides the reader with a reason to continue reading. A bad one, however, could confuse them and change the course of the story. Other than the main elements ( exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolutions), a plot device can increase the stakes in one’s story.
The most common and widely known device is a cliffhanger. It’s a method that has proven to be effective for a long time. Leaving the conflict between characters in a story or the main reason for a mystery unsolved/ hanging is a classic for bringing the targeted audience back to the book. When cliffhangers are naturally introduced to the reader, even if the reader feels frustrated that the story remains unfinished, their agitation is limited to just that.
Reeling in the readers by making the protagonist face a life and death situation or revealing a very important piece of information just to leave it halfway is a powerful technique. Authors use this method at the end of chapters or even at the end of the book to leave it open for interpretation. James Patterson is an author who uses cliffhangers in a great manner.
A plot device that deals with an object, event or character that is introduced in the beginning. It may not carry as much weight initially but as the story goes on, it could be the smoking gun and an extremely crucial element that cannot be disposed of or looked at lightly. Making subtle use of foreshadowing, by presenting it as a (possibly) harmless element then later its true nature comes out.
A playwright, Anton Chekhov came up with the concept of not introducing elements in the plot if they will not be of importance later on. Being more of a helping hand for story development, it is often mistaken for a plot device. A plot voucher closely follows this method as it guides writers to write in a way that permits their readers to not be deceived later on.
The complete opposite of this is MacGuffin, a plot device wherein the characters chase after an object or being which is more or less of no use to the storyline. Such a drastic approach is only used to throw off people just in case they get too close to cracking the mystery of the book.
Even if it is a completely cliched device, it gives readers a choice. This usually involves three characters out of which two are in love with each other while a third one is in love with one of them. Although we know it can only end in despair for the one in the latter, we still keep the hope that somehow they could win.
Sadly the saying goes, two’s a company, three’s a crowd. An epitome of this could be Edward, Bella and Jacob in the Twilight Saga and I’m sure we all felt the sting of disappointment due to those books.
Deviating from the flow of the novel, it’s not unusual for writers to include scenes from characters’ pasts. These can be used as a relevant plot device to provide readers with a deeper insight into the personality of the characters. It could provide them with the necessary context they need to understand the actions or reasons behind the specific displays of behaviour exhibited by the characters. This could be a good way to create sympathy or understanding for your characters.
Deus Ex Machina
Originating from Greek, meaning a god from the machinery, a device that provides a way to end cleanly, typically with the help of a powerful figure who gives hope by fixing the hanging threads of a plot. By literally “saving the day”, this kind of heroic action uncomplicates sticky situations. It is referred to as a crutch of sorts since it’s used in the end, seeming like a last-minute decision by the author, however, one needs to proceed with caution while using this. It should still come as a surprise to the readers enough for them to not be disappointed with the ending.
Saving the best for last, writers tend to leave easter eggs throughout the book that could be (major or minor) hints about a particular event or action that might take place in the book later on. They could either be very obvious and catch your eye immediately or they could be details that wouldn’t be clear to you until they are revealed in the very end.
An approach like this is guaranteed to bring conflict (an extremely important element) and create obstacles for your book characters. It could also be as simple as dangling a carrot in front of your reader and waiting if they take it, only visible if they’re focusing on the details, of course.
A good reminder to keep is that plot devices help you elevate your story as well as literary devices enhance the language your story is written in. It is also crucial to remember that these are methods that just aid your plot to get to a better standing, the plot (which is the essential base) needs to be strong enough to support the techniques and tools applied to them to fully appeal to the person reading it. A book which has a strong beginning, addictive middle and a clean ending, has the potential to be great as it forms a whole sequence.
While the above-mentioned plot devices do help in making the book more interesting, there are a few other ways to raise the bar. Elevating the level of conflict of interest between characters, complicating the feelings of the main love interests, and introducing dangerous situations that could threaten the life of the protagonist, thereby causing readers to question everything that has happened so far in the book.
During the times we feel stuck whilst writing, these methods have proven time and again to help authors and writers alike with their stories. At the end of the day, we are writers. Characters walk into our imaginations, stories show up through our dreams and plots can be reflections of our realities. Choosing to share these with the world and hoping they fall in love with them or at least treat them with the same amount of effort and care we put in, is not a wild dream after all. All writers have the power to come up with plots and also the determination to turn them into great stories.