Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Beware the Clunky Plot Device

by Michelle Gagnon

So I'm reading a fairly well-known book right now, and hit a passage that almost caused me to stop reading.

The heroine is fleeing a pursuer barefoot. She narrowly escapes, making it to her car. Just when I was starting to worry for her pedicure, the author explains that, thankfully, she keeps an extra pair of shoes on hand for just this sort of situation (since, apparently, barefoot pursuits happen regularly in her day-to-day life). So she will be spared the embarassment of running unshod throughout the remainder of the storyline a la John McClane in Die Hard.


This is something that happens all too frequently: the clunky plot device. I understand that there are times when as a writer you need a cell phone to go dead, or to drop a call. And now that I'm a proud AT&T customer, I'll admit that it actually does happen with alarming frequency- I experience more dropped calls now then in 1997, frankly. (Love the iPhone. Hate the network).

But must it always happen at a critical juncture?

Okay, I get it: particularly in our genre, plot devices are a bit of a necessary evil. Heck, I'll confess to utilizing some of these zingers myself: dropped calls, failed radio transmissions, the works. Sometimes you need your hero/heroine to be unable to call for help. Sometimes you need them to be shod in suitable footwear. I actually don't always mind these devices, but for God's sake, please give me something. Say that the heroine remembered that her gym bag was in the backseat, with a pair of sneakers inside. There, now you've given me a reason to buy into what you're selling. But just an extra pair of shoes? That's laziness, plain and simple.

Other irritating devices:

* An object that the hero just happens to have in their possession, which ends up saving his/her life. A Bible in the shirt pocket that stops a bullet, for example.

* The hero escapes imminent danger, but then stops to hang out somewhere absurdly close to where he/she was just in peril. This usually results in the hero narrowly escaping death...again...only to have the exact same thing occur pages later. I call this the, "Will they never learn/for God's sake, keep moving!" plot device.

* "It was all just a dream!" 'Nuff said.

* Along with the inconveniently dropped call/ dead cell phone, I submit its benevolent twin, the perfectly-timed call that either saves the hero's life, or provides him/her with a critical piece of information that advances the story.

* An adjunct to the perfectly-timed call is the extraordinarily convenient event that no one could ever predict, which ends up saving the hero ie: a flock of birds suddenly distracting the killer. Or a car passing by at just the right moment. Or a gun materializing within hand's reach for no good reason.

* The hero ignoring a perfectly good escape route, only to choose a far more difficult path that is fraught with bad guys/demons/molten lava.

Do plot devices bother you? And which do you hold particular esteem or contempt for?


  1. The accidentally overheard conversation is number one for me, followed closely by the chance meeting in a large city.

  2. I can't help but wonder how long a story one could write by simply stringing these things together. Something akin to the old "The bad news is the airplane engine failed. The good news is I had parachute handy. The bad news is the parachute didn't open. The good news is I landed in a haystack..."

  3. I'm with you, Michelle. What you describe is purely for the convenience of the writer at the expense of the reader. It’s a sign of a writer’s mind at rest.

  4. I've always considered it a good rule that any coincidence in a story work against the Lead.

  5. I do appreciate if the plot device is worked in such a way as to make it believable. Like you mentioned, the gym bag in the car. I like Jim's idea of making any coincidence work against the Lead. Just a great rule of thumb.

  6. I was told early on in my writing journey that a "coincidence" or "fortuitous event" could never help the protagonist, only hurt them. The corollary was that only the protagonist could foil the bad guy, escape the trap, or otherwise triumph--someone else couldn't do it for them. Obviously there may be exceptions, but I still think these are good guidelines. And I cringe when they aren't observed.

  7. So it's not mystery or thriller, but fantasy, it drives me nuts when "suddenly" someone remembers a bit of magic or a spell that saves the day, The End. Seriously? Can't anyone use their brain to solve a problem??? *grumblegrumble*

  8. My favorite(?) is a corollary of your example: woman running in heels. She either breaks a heel or twists her ankle. What gets me is that it's so easily avoided. Set up the high heel expectation, and have become undone by something else. Maybe she's worrying about the heels and hit her head on a low overhang.

    Another is the young, hot woman (usually scantily clad) going someplace where NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MINDS WOULD GO!!! Everyone's thinking "Don't go down/up/in there," but she does. Same fix: at the last second she changes her mind, and the killer actually was in the same room as her the whole time. She foiled her own escape.

    (I have some issues with always using women in such scenes as a cheap way to ratchet up the danger level, but that's a different rant.)

    I once needed my hero not to be able to make a cell call from his car, so I rewrote what came before to make it more than plausible for him to leave home without it. Once I needed for the hero and the bad guy to run out of bullets at a convenient time, so I was careful to specify what kinds of guns, and to make sure the proper number of shots had been fired previously.

    Fortuitous circumstance can work, but it has to be well prepared.

  9. A woman breaking her heel and/or falling down, needing to be rescued by strong/smarter men has always bothered me. It was such a staple of 1960's TV, especially The Big Valley with Linda Evans as Audra Barkley. The counterpart to that was the very manly private detective that was too dumb not to look for the guy hiding behind the door left ajar. Boom! He'd take a rabbit punch to the back of the neck and wake up hours later. Grrr!!

  10. If I want absurd solutions to the dilemmas in a story (as I am often wont to want) I will read Douglas Adams and the like.

    Otherwise don't give me a situation that is more than slightly improbable. Books like that tend to end up half read on the back of my toilet.

  11. Ah, yes, the infamous, "Oh no, my Jimmy Choos!" device. Always a favorite.

    I forgot one- this is from the second episode of Flash Forward (in other words...SPOILER ALERT!!!)

    They're staking out a bus stop with a full SWAT team. Suspect doesn't show for the bus he bought a ticket for. They proceed to search the abandoned doll factory next door to the bus stop (thrown in there for sheer creep factor-doll parts are inherently spooky) BY THEMSELVES, leaving the SWAT team back at the bus stop taking in the night air. Of course, the suspect is in the doll factory. Of course, one of the three is killed.
    Mind you, I love this show so far, but COME ON! Send the SWAT team away, THEN you have a semi-plausible reason to go in without them. Lazy, lazy...

  12. Oh, and two thumbs up to Douglas Adams, Basil. Genius.

  13. I suppose this is more of a TV/Movie clunky Plot Device, but having the News on JUST IN TIME to convey precious info ("Wait! Quiet! They're talking about it on the TV!") drives me crazy...

  14. I think I should introduce you to my son. We spend many long movies discussing failed plot devices.

  15. Sheila- I've nearly been kicked out of theaters for the same thing.
    And David- I dont know what you're talking about, every time I walk past an electronics store, every TV in the window is blasting a news report directly related to me...

  16. I just got out of my truck and realized that it is a haven of clunky plot devices. Since this article got me thinking about I checked around and discovered the following:

    1. running shoes in my gym bag
    2. a military wool blanket
    3. a rain poncho
    4. a backpack
    5. two knit caps
    6. a baseball cap
    7. about fifty feet of parachute chord
    8. an extra pair of glasses
    9. a folding shovel
    10. enough tools to do most of whatever I'd need to do
    11. two pairs of thick wool socks
    12. a K-Bar combat knife
    13. a Gerber hatchet
    14. a first aid kit
    15. a whistle
    16. a compass
    17. a set of maps covering most of southcentral alaska
    18. a case of water bottles.
    19. a FRS radio / walkie talkie
    20. a shortwave radio
    21. a flashlight
    22. two different multi-plyer tools
    23. mosquito repellent
    24. a magnesium fire starter
    25. a long stemmed lighter
    26. a wad of steel wool (makes good tinder)
    27. numerous straps, bungees, and zip ties
    28. two MRE meal packs
    29. a canteen on a web belt
    30. a 20x20 blue tarp
    31. two rolls of duct tape (one black, one silver)
    32. a .38 revolver and ammo
    33. a chapstick

    Most of it was within arms reach from the drivers seat'd think I lived in Alaska....or a war zone

  17. Ooh!

    and four pairs of gloves...only two pairs match though...

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  19. Good lord, Basil, that's perfect for any thriller plot device! Or for a MacGyver episode, you could probably build something pretty nifty with all that..

  20. How about where the armed villain has the hero squarely in his gunsights, then misses! Of course, the hero starts running, while the villain fires off a few more rounds, all wide of the mark. Finally, when the hero turns and fires, BLAM! The killshot, right in the chest. If only these bad guys spent a little more time on the firing range...

  21. i hate the, 'i think i've killed him dead, so i walk right next to his arm'.....and lo had behold....i didn't kill him dead....he grabs my leg and the tussle is on for another smidge....until at that time i really kill him dead....or my boyfriend/detective/or whoever kills him dead. come on....pick up a club....give him a wide berth....and be done with it....geez, already....and furthermore....does he always have to be between me and the door???

  22. Geez, I thought I kept a lot of crap in my car, but Basil S sure has me beat. I've got a couple of pair of trail shoes in the trunk, sandals up front, a couple of camp chairs, cds, map books, numerous cases of diet Coke and diet Sprite, some beer, a couple of tripods and who knows what else floating in the car. I can't imagine having an immaculate vehicle. My hated plot devices include many already listed, espcially the pursued woman who falls down while pursued by the psycho. Really, women aren't all dumb helpless klutzes. Another common (espcially in tv/movies) device is the one where the "team/hero" realizes the sociopath of the week is in the house with the upcoming would be victim and rushes off to spend the next 20 minutes driving to the house themselves rather than call the nearest local cop/squad card to the scene. Crminal Minds is really bad about this, but they're not alone.