What is a Plot Device - Featured - StudioBinder

The term “Plot device” has grown to be taboo in the world of writing. Most screenwriters associate the term with an inherently negative connotation, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Plot devices have existed since the inception of stories, and for good reason.

So what is a plot device? In this article, we’re going to define what a plot device is, then look at some examples from film that show how they can be used in both poor and effective ways.

PLOT DEVICE DEFINITION

What is a Plot Device?

A plot device is anything that moves a story forward. This can be something material like a character or an object or something immaterial like a situation or a change in the film world. Many plot devices have become tropes over time, such as a Macguffin (physical object) and Deus Ex Machina (situational resolution.)

How to Recognize a Good Plot Device

  • Does it move the story forward?
  • Has it been overused to the point of cliche?
  • Determine whether it’s material or immaterial.

Now that we’ve defined what a plot device is, let’s look at some examples with a list of some that work and some that don’t!

List of Good Plot Device Objects in Film

Memento

In Memento (2000), Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) entire body is a plot device. Leonard is an amnesiac man who can’t remember anything after a short stretch of time. To cope with this condition, Leonard tattoos his body with clues and deductions that point him towards a killer. These clues, scattered across his body as a canvass, are storytelling devices that drive the story forward, or in Memento’s case in reverse.

Lessons from the Screenplay - Memento

So what makes the use of Leonard’s body as a plot device so good? Well it starts with the essential questions we looked at from the definition. This plot device is material, it moves the story forward and it’s unique in its execution. But most obviously this plot device works because it connects the audience to the character in an immersive way. We know little more than Leonard does, so the entire movie is about unravelling a mystery in “real time.” This makes watching Memento a thrilling adventure for cinema fans.

Bad Story Devices in Film

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It’s never too early to call out bad plot devices when we see them, so the recently released The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is no exception. The final film of the Skywalker saga is marred by plot holes and critical mistakes throughout, but the “Sith Wayfinders” plot device may be the most egregious of all.

NowThis Nerd - J.J. Abrams talks The Rise of Skywalker

Here’s the plot to The Rise of Skywalker: several characters are trying to get from point A (Rebel Base) to point B (Sith planet Exogal). The only problem is that they don’t know how to get there. But wait, apparently there are objects hidden throughout the galaxy that will point them to their destination. Somehow these objects were never mentioned before nor have any purpose beyond serving this plot point. Fun right?!

The Rise of Skywalker has faced its fair share of criticism since release,  so there’s no point in piling on the damage here. But the Sith Wayfinders plot device is a great example of what to avoid when writing your script.

Good Character Plot Devices in Film

The Third Man

How does one effectively use character as a plot device in film? Look no further for instruction than Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The Third Man is not only the name of the film but also a secretive character who the protagonist believes to be complicit in a murder. His masked identity is the plot device that drives the story forward.

Peter Bogdanovich on The Third Man

Orson Welles said that his character Harry Lime (the third man) is one of the great “start parts” in cinema history. A start part is an acting role that is hyped up by others before their introduction, so that when they do appear on screen the audience is already mystified. 

Bad Character Plot Device Examples in Film

John Wick 3 Parabellum

Just because a movie uses a bad plot device doesn’t mean that it’s a bad movie. For as fun and visceral as the John Wick movies are, they’re somewhat littered with plot devices, some good and some bad.

Doctor Scene in John Wick 3

The doctor in the scene above can be characterized as a bad plot device because he serves no purpose other than to drive the story forward. I know what you’re thinking, “But shouldn’t everything be designed to drive the story forward?” The answer to that question is yes, but to do so consistently, you must create developed characters. Although John Wick 3 does a lot of things exceptionally, developing nuanced characters isn’t one of them.  

Good Story Device Situational Examples in Film

Shutter Island

How do you create an advanced plotting device? The best place to start is with disguising the situation as something else, like Martin Scorsese does in his film Shutter Island (2010). 

Behind the Scenes of Shutter Island

Up until the climax of the film, the audience is led to believe that the protagonist Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a detective investigating crimes in a treacherous setting. The story of the film is driven forward by his investigation across the island, but everything changes when a twist is introduced. The plot transforms by revealing that Teddy is actually the man he’s supposedly hunting. This is a situational plot shift that results in clear resolution.

The main reason why this twist works is because it had been developed and foreshadowed throughout the film. It’s important to consider whether the shift will make sense with the proceeding events when introducing a plot device situation.  

Bad Plot Device Situations in Film

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 

A plot twist is just one example of a storytelling device. Although we’ve seen how plot twists can be used effectively in film, they can also seriously mess things up.

The Eagles Are Coming in The Return of the King

Oh the eagles. No, not the bald headed ones, and definitely not the LA rock band. I’m talking about the mythical eagles from the world of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, because boy they are something, and by something I mean a bad plot device. 

The Lord of the Rings follows a group of hobbits, elves, dwarves and humans on their quest to destroy the one true ring of power. Throughout the films, the fellowship encounter dastardly enemies while travelling throughout Middle Earth, all on foot. 

Eventually a small contingent arrive at Mount Doom, the place where the ring must be destroyed. Things go haywire due to a variety of different plot reasons, but just when hope seems to be lost for our weary travelers, the eagle army comes to save the day. You might be thinking “but wait, why didn’t they just fly the fellowship to Mordor?” That’s a good question, one that many LotR fans and scholars have analyzed for over 65 years. But the most simple explanation is that it’s a plot, ahem, hole that bails out the heroes from an otherwise inescapable situation.

Up Next

What is The Three Act Structure? 

Knowing the terms of screenwriting is just one step in writing a great screenplay. The next is to fully understand how a script should be organized. In this article, we look at the simple three act structure. You’ll be ready to begin development on your own original screenplay! 

Up Next: Three Act Structure →
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