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On the plot device

Right, so most stories have a plot. Sure, some don't but non narrative writing (be it fictional or otherwise) isn't under discussion here.

One model that frequently pops up is the idea that a story needs three parts, a beginning, middle and end. This is sometimes referred to as the three acts model and is par for the course for most wannabe screenwriting workshops.I've found that this results in something resembling a fanatical devotion to the form in some circles. As someone who took a degree in a branch of narrative theory, I find this rather mystifying because it seems that such workshops fail to instill a realization that those "three acts" should have four parts (introduction, build up, climax, resolution) and almost universally lump climaxes in with resolutions. This would explain much about films that have their climaxes 5 minutes before the end. That is not a resolution. That is a footnote. Pretending such things are resolutions is irritating to me. image

So... plot structure.

The basic plot structure (which the three act cult is based off of but doesn't understand too well) looks basically like a mountain for most 6th grade classes. Start off with introducing the characters and situation, do some build up and character development up to a climax. At the climax, something is distinctly changed within the narrative and the conclusion is spent dealing with some of the ramifications of the climax for the characters and/or the setting.

There are no end of ways those four narrative building blocks can be arranged. The basic form is just what a lot of people seem to use. A story could have multiple climaxes of equal importance to the story as a whole. One can leave off the resolution completely in some cases, or leave enough loose ends that the story continues anyway (all serials do this to a greater or lesser extent). Or one could even have a great big huge climax in the beginning and have the rest of the story everyone dealing with it in whatever way.

Now I'm sure some of you are asking yourselves, "What about plot devices?" (Well, maybe not, but shut up or stop reading or something. Or you could keep reading. That's OK too.)

A plot device is something used to kick a story off or jog a story out of a rut. It's frequently used in conjunction with a couple of premises. Here are a few of the more fun varieties of plot devices.

The Federation plot device- So named for the fictional United Federation of Planets featured in Star Trek, this plot device is renowned for explaining away diagetic mysteries and loopholes with something completely out of the blue and then acting as it were obvious and there all along and why didn't the silly reader pick up on it? This is not to be confused with times where the author does make allusions to the upcoming twist, although they may be things which are easily overlooked at that time in the narrative.

A Federation plot device is likely to be cloaked in pseudo-scientific technobabble in order to lend it some semblance of plausibility and validity. Because everyone knows that if you drop dilithium crystals in pure dark matter the Enterprise will go warp 10.

The Whovian plot device- Whereas the Federation plot device seeks to explain its shortcomings, a whovian plot device more or less glosses over them and moves on. Named for Doctor Who (where it is rather common) this plot device is less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how things work and more with moving on to something else new and exciting. It certainly helps explain time travel without screwing everything up every time the TARDIS takes off.

The instant plot device- Just add random characters. No, really. This kind of plot device tends to be very cliche and the only way to distinguish it from any other, similar plot is to add weird characters. Think of it like this, anyone can write a "boy meets girl" story. Not everyone can write a boy meets girl story when the boy is a gold fish and the girl is an armadillo. Or where the boy is a pacifist and the girl comes from a tribe of cannibals. These should sound more interesting than "new scruffy boy in town meets gorgeous cheerleader" (i hope). It's like adding things to plain oatmeal. Most people like brown sugar or cinnamon. Not everyone puts eggs and cheddar cheese in it.

The twist- No, not the dance. Think about every M. NIght Shamaylan movie ever made. Think about the endings to a lot of episodes of the Twilight Zone. Those are twists. They take something you were led to expect and turn it into something completely different, often without warning. While okay to use once, maybe twice, resorting to twists to propel a story will more often than not result in the twists themselves becoming expected and sometimes boring.

Usually a light sprinkling of these plot devices is all right. However, relying on these things to see your story through is generally a bad idea and should be avoided.  After all, these are cliches we are tiptoeing around. Step softly.