Created By: VampireBuddha on April 27, 2010
Troped

Plot Device

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Because I'm sick of people misusing MacGuffin

A plot device is an object or character in the story whose purpose is purely to drive the plot. It could be something everybody wants to obtain, a device that must be destroyed, or an annoying teenager who must be protected at all cost.

It may also be an object or gadget introduced early in the story for the sole purpose of solving a sticky situation later on.

The term is commonly used in a derisory manner, on the grounds that the best stories are character driven, and using an object to make things happen is thus seen as a sign of Bad Writing. However, there are plenty of good stories which do indeed revolve around a plot device; equally, a plot device can very easily be used to generate conflict and thus spark a character-driven story.

Subtropes:
  • Artifact of Attraction: An item which magically causes everybody to lust after it, generating conflict.
  • Artifact of Doom: A powerful item that causes corruption in all who use it.
  • Plot Coupons: A set of items which the characters all want to collect.
  • MacGuffin: A plot device which nobody actually uses, and whose nature and identity are basicall irrelevant.
  • Magnetic Plot Device: A plot device whose very presence causes things to happen.

Examples (some taken from MacGuffin:

  • The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings: the entire story is an attempt to destroy it.
  • Energy is a plot device in Transformers: Generation 1, Headmasters, Masterforce, Victory, Zone, and Energon, as the Transformers were all after energy to revitalise some planet or other. Angolmois fulfilled a similar role in Beast Wars II and Beast Wars Neo, with the AllSpark being the device of choice for the movies and Animated. In Armada, it was Mini-Cons, and in Cybertron, it was the CyberPlanetKeys. Generation 2, Beast Wars, and Beast Machines did not use this trope, relying instead of extraplanetary threats, screwing with time, and a fight for power to have toys beat the slag out of each other.
    • Also, in several continuities, there's the Matrix, used to appoint new Autobot leaders and sometimes create new robotic life. Naturally, the Decepticons generally want it.
  • One could very well argue that the Evas from Neon Genesis Evangelion are plot devices for the purpose of destroying the sanity of the children. Sure, the bulk of the series is about them, but if we follow the progression of the series, it arcs around the Evas destroying Shinji's identity and causing great mental strife in Asuka ending at Shinji realizing he doesn't need to be an Eva pilot to be alive. It's not that pretty when you see it this way, and again proves it's not really a Mech show, but it does make that bit more sense, if you think Evangelion can have sense be made of it.
  • Eric Flint made up a plot device for his book 1632 (he originally thought he was only going to write one book, not a series) called an Assiti Shard that transports a spherical area through time and space to an Alternate Universe. Flint openly states that he made the things up so that he'd have an easy way to create various Alternate History and Science Fiction books.
    • In other words, they serve no purpose other then being an excuse for why George Washington is negotiating with Julius Caesar, or why there's US prisoners and Native Americans fighting dinosaurs, or any other such historical shenanigans.
  • The titular Emblem in the Fire Emblem games takes on the role of the local plot device in the majority of the games.

Community Feedback Replies: 16
  • April 27, 2010
    KJMackley
    A plot device is anything that enables the plot to go forward. It is certainly a very wide subject and we have barely touched the surface of all the different kinds. And it is not always the most important thing in a story. For example, Sam in the Transformers Film Series got involved because of putting his grandfathers glasses on E Bay, a Mac Guffin. But the whole sequence with him being arrested and claiming to see his car stand up was another plot device that caught the attention of Sector Seven, drawing Sam to Hoover Dam and so forth.

    Whenever someone uses the term Plot Device derisively (if they are using the term properly), it is because there is a dissonance between it and the actual needs of the story. For example, the hero has a chance to stop the Big Bad but he is called away because his wife is Trapped By Mountain Lions. It makes the story more complicated without adding anything in return. The villain doesn't build any credentials by setting up the sadistic choice and the hero doesn't spend time agonizing over his missed opportunity.
  • April 27, 2010
    girlyboy
    Methinks this would be one of those very basic articles that don't need examples, because the examples list would be about as long as the list of all fiction ever.

    Instead, just have a nice trope description and a list of the different sub-tropes (as you do now), and that's it, maybe?

    See also: Narrative Devices.
  • April 27, 2010
    WackyMeetsPractical
    I agree this doesn't need examples, but this one needs to be said.

    • There is a character in Sheep In The Big City, literally called The Plot Device, which is a robot that can cause nearly anything to happen to advance the plot.
  • April 28, 2010
    girlyboy
    Oh, Sheep In The Big City. :D On the note of literal plot devices, I remember reading a discussion of faster-than-light travel somewhere (Atomic Rocket, I think) that called the fictional FTL drive it used as an example the Plott-deVice Drive. Can't for the life of me find it again. :(
  • April 28, 2010
    VampireBuddha
    OK, leaving out examples makes sense.

    So when this gets launched, how about restricting it to lampshaded examples? The SITBC one is just too good to not mention.
  • April 28, 2010
    girlyboy
    I am in agreement; straight examples would be too numerous, but an example section with a note explicitly saying it's only for lampshade hangings (or I dunno, maybe interesting subversions/unexpected aversions/etc? Maybe? I dunno.) would be good.
  • April 29, 2010
    Arivne
    ^^^ @girlyboy: the only reference I can find to Plott-deVice Drive is on this page, which credits it to Dr Bill Ernoehazy, an author on the Orions Arm project.

    By using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine I found a copy of the original Orions Arm page which had this information:

    "Bill Ernoehazy

    I'm Bill Ernoehazy, an emergency medicine specialist in Jacksonville Florida and environs. I'm fannish enough to be invited to speak at a couple of cons a year -- medicine in and of space (I was once a NASA/Univ of Florida Physician Affiliate), martial arts as they're portrayed in genre fiction (I teach Elizabethan rapier and knifework), and punditry on futuristic developments. I keep a delighted eye on transhumanist, nanotechnological, and extropian groups and authors, though I often wonder how much of the unbridled optimism relies on dubiousine and unobtanium. On the OTHER hand, I can get pessimism all over the place, eh?"
  • April 29, 2010
    Dcoetzee
    Wikipedia has an article on plot device, defining it as "an object or character in a story whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story, or alternatively to overcome some difficulty in the plot." It gives several examples: the Mac Guffin, the Deus Ex Machina, the "plot voucher" (which is what we call Chekhovs Gun), Translator Microbes, and Death Trap. It also gives this example which I wasn't able to find a trope for: "Other plot devices are simply intended to get the protagonist to the next scene of the story. The enemy spy, who suddenly appears, defects, reveals the location of the secret headquarters, and is never heard of again, would be an extreme example.".
  • April 29, 2010
    girlyboy
    @Arivne: Oh, awesome! Thank you. That's the page I was thinking of. (I don't know why I confused it with Atomic Rocket). :P
  • April 29, 2010
    macroscopic
    Agree we need this, not just to stop people from mispotholing macguffin but hell, it's kindof our territory I don't know why we didn't have it already. But why is the One Ring on there? it's pretty much a text-book Macguffin.
  • April 29, 2010
    TJ
    ^The One Ring falls under all but Plot Coupons of the five catgories listed. Is it better to keep the One Ring in the examples of all four of those others, or move it here? That's why I think it's been listed here.
  • April 30, 2010
    Arivne
  • April 30, 2010
    VampireBuddha
    @TJ: But the Ring actively works to corrupt Frodo, and he uses it at several points to become invisible. Therefore, it's not a MacGuffin.
  • April 30, 2010
    girlyboy
    Hmm. Thinking about that, maybe the examples section is a good idea... Just for things that don't fit neatly in a sub-category, or fit under several of them in an interesting way or something. I don't know anymore. :P
  • April 30, 2010
    TJ
    @Vampire Buddha: Oops. I didn't mean for Mac Guffin to be included. I think I meant for Plot Coupons to be included, because there's a set of rings. I messed it up somehow, anyway. But my point was that the One Ring should be here, under Plot Device, rather than under any of the others.
  • May 2, 2010
    VampireBuddha
    @TJ: Actually, that was my mistake. I was actually responding to macroscopic, but my eyes glitched and I somehow attached your name to it. Sorry.

    Yes, the One Ring belongs here, but so do a shitload of other things. In fact, the number of stories with plot devices is probably greater than the number without. Hence the decision to restrict the examples to lampshadings and references to the term.
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