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January 25, 2022

3 Plot Devices To Elevate Your Screenplay

How do you move your story forward? This is a crucial question you need to ask yourself when writing your script. Even with the perfect plot and some lively characters, your story can easily get stuck. A great way to spark interest or move your story around a particular setback is to utilize plot devices to elevate your story. We have listed out 3 of the most well-known plot devices for you to utilize today!

Elevate your screenplay with these 3 plot devices

Here are some plot device examples you can use to keep your plot in motion and your audience hooked.  

1. Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina is Latin for "God from the machine." This plot device is an event that appears to come out of nowhere from the heavens. It disrupts the plot and throws everything into the air.

Deus ex machinas were initially used in the Greek tragedy plays despite the Latin roots of this screenwriting term. A character playing God would be lowered onto the stage using a crane-like machine.

A deus ex machina is a great way to resolve drama or create new drama. It can fix a situation very quickly, but it can also lead to a slow diminution in the audience's tension.

An example would be if an enemy were struck by lightning, killing him or rendering him incapable of carrying out his evil mission.

It would be best to be careful when using a deus ex machina. They must be believable. An audience will feel cheated if you suddenly use it to kill off a central antagonist or solve the main problem of the plot. Also, be careful not to bring your story to an abrupt close that derails your structure.

But they can be used to increase the drama and to get you out of sticky situations. For example, a deus ex machina doesn't have to be a singular event; it can also take the form of an object.

A great example is using the sword and the phoenix in Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets. An intervention seemingly from 'God' in the form of Dumbledore's phoenix swoops into the Chamber of Secrets. It gives him Godric Gryffindor's Sword while poking out the basilisk's eyes - as the eyes of the basilisk can kill in one glance. Harry can then use the sword to defeat the basilisk.

When Harry is dying because the basilisk's fang has attacked him, it is also revealed that the tears of a phoenix have healing powers. Thus Harry, our protagonist, is miraculously saved from death.

Set up is very important to the believability of the deus ex machina. Earlier in the Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Fawkes is Dumbeldore's pet and that they have healing powers and that a phoenix also has the capability of rebirth.    

2. Red herring

Another plot device you can use is a red herring or narrative misdirection in general. This throws your audience off the scent of where your plot is going. If you do it right, it can help create satisfaction with your audience at the end of the film or series.

Remember, narrative misdirection and red herrings are different from unreliable narrators that are used to create space between the point of view of the narrative and what is or might be happening.

Examples of narrative misdirection or a red herring would be signposting viewers to believe that one character is the villain when in fact, the true culprit is someone they haven't suspected.

In many adaptations of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, we are led to believe that escaped Magwitch is the antagonist and that Miss Havisham is Pips' benefactor and that she is trying to set him up with Estella. Miss Havisham destroys Pip by breaking his heart as she was jilted at the altar. We have been led away from Magwitch, who is the benefactor who made Pip rich. Remember your narrative misdirection must be believable, and you must have left a few clues for your readers to pick up on.    

3. MacGuffin

A MacGuffin is a device or object that characters in the plot seek, but it usually is not essential. The journey rather than the destination is what they are chasing.

A great example of a MacGuffin is the sugar bowl in Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. In the books, we are led to believe that it is central to the schism in VFD. Characters from both sides of the schism seek it, yet we never find out what's in it.

However, the TV series decided to change this up and reveal to viewers at the very end what is in the sugar bowl: a permanent antidote to the deadly fungus that has killed many of the characters.

Image of the sugar bowl used as a plot device.
The "sugar bowl" is an example of a MacGuffin plot device.

In the end, as viewers, we quickly assume that the sugar bowl has no - or in the case of the TV show - little - importance because the reason for the schism itself is irrelevant. It is the fact that the schism itself is central to the plot and not what caused it.

A MacGuffin helps create a sense of mystery and propel the series forward as characters on both sides of the schism are in a race to find it. Then, just as characters come close to finding it or uncovering what's in it, you can remove it from the plot again.

Such a device can help focus your plot as your characters hone in on the specific goal of finding the MacGuffin.  

Liven up your screenplay

Plot devices can help liven up your plot and move things forward. You want to make sure you correctly use them and make them seem plausible with the confines of your plot.

If you are struggling with your plot, be sure to study other films, TV shows, and even books to uncover how other writers have dealt with similar problems. See if you can spot examples of plot devices such as MacGuffins, red herrings, and deus ex machinas and ask yourself how effectively they've worked.


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3 Plot Devices To Elevate Your Screenplay
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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