Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In Praise of the Plot Device

Over the past week I've seen three movies (Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), but noticing that I tend to talk a lot more about movies than I do about writing, I'm going to hold off discussing these for awhile. Suffice it to say, Jake Gyllenhaal has a surprisingly great body, Heath Ledger had better win an Oscar, and I still hold firm to my belief that TLtWatW has got to be one of the more highly over-rated stories in literature (sorry to the Narnia fans out there, but I call 'em like I see 'em).

Instead - and inspired by Sporadic Scrivener's latest post - I'd rather discuss what Wikipedia calls plot devices. To it's credit, Wikipedia does not imply that a plot device is necessarily a bad thing. It explains that in the hands of a good writer, a plot device works, while a poor writer will call such attention to a plot device that anvils fall from the sky.

Even so, when I hear the words plot device, I almost instantly get the sense the implication is of something bad. Plot devices seem to be something to be avoided or at the very least, concealed so craftily as to be undetectable for what they are.

Except, if you look at Wikipedia's list, pretty much every single story ever told by humankind seems to have used some form of plot device or another, if not several at one time. Sure, some of these are more obnoxious than others - the flashing arrow, for example - but a story without a villain in some form or another is either too high-brow for me or trying too hard to impress itself. Without a villain, even in the form of the hero or heroine's own personal foibles, there are no obstacles for him or her to overcome and therefore a whole lot of navel gazing, perhaps, but a pretty boring story.

Too, some of these plot devices serve to make a story more interesting. If used properly, a well placed cliffhanger not only keeps the audience coming back for more, it ups the tension within the story. If Nell Fenwick is tied to the train tracks while Snidely Whiplash twirls his mustache with glee and Dudley Do-Right gallops madly to the rescue, isn't it more exciting and thrill-enducing to be given an entire night (or month or hiatus) to imagine the worse possible outcome than finding out after the next commercial break how easy it was to save the day? Making the reader wait to learn the outcome of a suspenseful situation adds to his involvement in the story, his investment in what happens, and his eventual relief when everything turns out as he'd hoped (or not, as the opposite case would be). Clever use of cliffhangers can turn a so-so suspense into a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat perching experience.

I would imagine that the romance genre would have died a quick death without the plot device of sexual tension. In fact, it's the ability of a writer to create believable, almost palpable sexual tension between her hero and heroine that can make the difference between a successful writing career and a lifetime of rejection letters. How many television programs utilized the sexual tension between key characters to keep viewers spell bound? Um, let's see how many I can name without cruising Google: Cheers (Sam and Diane), X-Files (Mulder and Scully), Friends (Ross and Rachel), Moonlighting (David and Maddie), Northern Exposure (Maggie and Joel), Remington Steele (Laura and Steele), The West Wing (Josh and Donna). I could go on, but you get the point. Sexual tension isn't just filler for a story, sometimes it's the pivotal point that makes the story.

I admit that some of the items on the list can have the effect of sending a story over the top. But I'd still argue that such things as a deathtrap or MacGuffins serve to make fiction more interesting. Yes, when a villain chooses to kill a hero or heroine in some elaborate, sadistic way rather than simply shooting the hapless soul between the eyes, we may roll our eyes. Or when an entire story revolves around a group of characters' single-minded goal of returning a magical ring to the pit of a fiery volcano, we are asked to susped our disbelief to the limits.

But wouldn't fiction be pretty boring if only things we can believe in are portrayed? Wouldn't we miss a lot of fun reading if villains always acted rationally and in the most simplistic ways possible, or if magic was never used nor hyper-importance given to an ordinary, every-day household item? The very genesis of the creative process is imagining something beyond the ordinary. What would happen if a ring held such power as to enable its wearer to control all living creatures? How much more would we fear for our hero if he were trapped in the villain's dungeon, facing torture and who knows what else instead of a quick execution shot to the head?

I suppose my argument here might be made to no-one except myself. I think it's a matter of accepting that plot device doesn't necessarily mean something negative, per se. More, it's a matter of how to use plot devices for good rather than evil.

And if the plot is the skeleton of a story, with characters and narrative being muscles and skin, a plot device should serve as something akin to an internal organ. You don't see your heart or stomach or lungs, yet you are aware that they are there, pumping blood, digesting food, and re-oxygenating your blood. You want them to work properly, doing their job to keep your body working without any fuss. Yet you certainly wouldn't have a viable person without them. Take one away and everything comes to a full stop.

The craft comes in shoving plot devices so far inside, working so smoothly and efficiently, that you forget all about their existence. Cause no one wants to look at a person with a big fat hunk of pancreas stuck on the outside.

1 comment:

Scrivener said...

LOL Lynn! :)

My problem with plot devices isn't so much their existence, of course, but their overuse. And in particular the overuse of devices which have become so hackneyed that they should be consigned to the dustbin of fiction-writing. Not even the recycling bin; the compactor. ;)

There is also the problem of the tired plot device which is flagged so far in advance that by the time it finally arrives you just can't bear it any more. All the clues strewn along the path that the author clearly thinks are 'subtle', but in fact are practically neon signs proclaiming Big, Tired Plot Device Ahead!.

Anyway, that's my real problem. ;) Thanks for drawing on my blog, by the way!