January 9, 2014
For those who aren’t familiar with writing lingo, a plot device is a gimmick that moves the plot forward, although ‘gimmick’ isn’t really the best word because it implies that it’s a bad thing, and plot devices can be done really well. Possibly the most famous plot device in literary history is The Maltese Falcon, in which the entire plot involves a whole bunch of people trying to acquire a statue of a black bird. The Indiana Jones movies all have some sort of plot device that drives the quest: the Arc of the Covenant in the first film.
One of my favorite plot devices was the treasure map in Romancing the Stone. Not only did it lead Jack and Joan on a wild chase through the jungle, pursued by REALLY BAD GUYS, but it created the basis of the conflict, which plays perfectly off the personalities of the lead characters. He’s a swaggering daredevil, a modern day pirate. She’s cautious, reclusive, conservative to a fault. He wants the treasure to buy a fancy boat and sail around the world. She needs it to save her sister’s life. Can she trust him? Does he really care about her, about anyone or anything besides money, or is he only turning on the charm to get his greedy fingers on the map? Even as she’s falling for him, she has to battle her doubts. This is a great plot device.
Another popular plot device is the secret journal, or box of letters, or Deep Sea Scrolls. In the movie National Treasure, it’s a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence that leads the characters through a series of clues. Again, these can be great plot devices.
I’m not going to name names, because the book I read was actually very good except for this one issue, and I don’t want to put potential readers off. However, by midway through the book I wanted to burn the damn secret journal. Here’s why.
A girl has in her possession a journal that she knows holds the answers to a Big Mystery which places her entire family in grave danger. In such a situation, one might assume she would immediately sit down and read said journal cover to cover.
One would be wrong.
Despite the fact that the contents could get her killed, the reading of the journal is strung out over a period of two weeks, via a series of increasingly ludicrous excuses. Someone might see her, for example, though she has a private room and could read it in the middle of the night while everyone else is asleep. And the handwriting is really hard to read, so she can only manage a few pages at a time because it just so hard, even though someone is threatening to murder her parents because of what it says in there.
And then, when she finally does buckle down, lo and behold! Random sections of the journal have been removed for no apparent reason other than to leave clues to their whereabouts in the remaining pages so she has to solve the riddle and find the pages, but not until she gets around to it after falling for a handsome boy and wrapping up a few other minor sub-mysteries. ARGH.
This is a plot device gone wrong. Horribly, frustratingly, heave the book at the wall wrong, had the writer not offset it with such wonderful character and setting. This plot device was so obvious and so forced, stringing out the discovery of its contents long enough for the rest of the plot to unfold, it nearly ruined what was an otherwise lovely book.
So…your turn. What’s your favorite device? Or one that drove you insane? In a bad way, I mean, although you may include the battery-operated type of device if you feel strongly about it. What the hell, we may all benefit from the information.
Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real