Plot On: Literary Devices to Help Writers Who’ve Lost the Plot

Monday, January 09, 2012
by Gila Green

Mired in your plot? Consider literary devices. Here are a few plot-oriented literary devices you should keep in your writer’s toolbox: red herring, repetitive designation, poetic justice, plot twist and plot device.

What is a red herring? They are often, but not exclusively, used in mysteries when the writer wants you to focus on Mr. Guilty-Looking. This deliberate diversion has readers chock-full of literary suspicions, while the genuine guilty party moves through the pages unsuspected.

Similar comments about casting a spotlight could be said about repetitive designation (linked to foreshadowing). Here, the writer shines a light on an object that appears trivial, but later turns out to be vital. A character might wear a key around her neck that she “just” found. The “trinket” gets noticed on a smattering of pages, but readers’ ears never perk up. At the height of the conflict, readers discover it is the key to the secret passage; has life-saving powers; is invaluable; the lock is found around the neck of her future husband; the list goes on and on.

Repetitive designation is at times resolved with another plot tool: poetic justice. This crowd-pleaser means the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Poetic justice is that ironic twist of fate that means the character got what she deserved (think: the wicked step-mother in Cinderella or Snow White or just about any famous wicked step-mother. They are all fated to the sword of poetic justice).

Two other plot-directed writer tricks you should slip into your toolbox are the following: plot twist and plot device. A plot twist is just that, a twist or surprise in the plot which takes the story in an entirely and unanticipated (on the part of the reader) direction. If someone (Dorothy?) wakes up and “it’s all a dream,” that’s a plot twist. If the “tourist” in Paris, turns out to be an undercover French agent, that’s a plot twist. Readers are often thrilled by plot twists, but I advise caution; plot twists can sometimes make readers feel cheated. If the only way you can resolve your conflict is by making the heroine disappear into thin air, readers may not come back for novel number two.

I offer the same counsel for the plot device. If a writer uses a plot device it means that she introduces a character or an object solely to forward her plot. That’s a terrific tool, but it should be seamless. An “Oh, how convenient, an identical twin brother!” is not the response you are going for. Plot devices, unlike poetic justice, should be invisible to the reader. In the same way that we’re not supposed to know how magicians make rabbits pop out of tall black hats, a good writer uses her literary devices to create magical worlds that readers want to re-inhabit, while the tools of the trade remain unseen.


Gila Green's latest online class for WOW! Women on Writing starts on Monday, January 16th! Sign up now for her popular LITERARY DEVICES WRITING WORKSHOP while there's still space available. For details and enrollment, visit our classroom page.


Laura W. said...

I would actually be wary of using some of these. While they're "crowd pleasers," so to speak, some of them can be pretty predictable. Especially the poetic justice and the red herring. If you're used to reading, say, mysteries, you might be able to smell out the red herring a mile off. Experienced readers will also pick up on repetitive designation.

Not that I, as a writer, know anything. I'm just speaking from a reader's standpoint, and some of these devices assume cluelessness on the part of the reader. I like to think that writers think I'm smarter than I am, instead of dumber.

Gila Green said...

Hi Laura,

Your comments are interesting & you bring up a point about target audience. For example, the Harry Potter series makes frequent use of repetitive designation and poetic justice. If you are hesitant to use certain devices for the reason you mention(which you don't have to be), consider your target audience. Something you might not wish to try for an adult audience, may feel fine for YA.

Margo Dill said...

Thanks for defining these for us. I could see an English teacher using your post as a resource for a course. These devices are in literature everywhere, and I do remember discussing these at length.

And look at ANY crime show--Bones, The Mentalist, The Closer, etc., etc. They all use RED HERRINGS--it is never the first person that everyone thinks it is. NEVER, and these shows are successful and have a huge fan following, so red herring is definitely still used.

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