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Taos Toolbox Notes, Part IV

Plot Devices

(This is not an exhaustive list.)

  • Doubling – have another character whose story mirrors and comments on the main character’s story. For example, Laertes and Fortinbras in Hamlet.
  • Conflict
  • Backstory – helps you avoid one damn thing after another. For example, the two stories in Nova.
  • Sidestory – a subplot or “B” story, which parallels and comments on the main story. Example: almost every Buffy episode. A counterarc for the arc, or perhaps some minor mystery.
  • ForeshadowingNova is full of foreshadowing.
  • Red herring – Send a character off on a wild goose chase and distract the reader from what you should be thinking about. Could solve some side problem.
  • Deleted affair – deliberately not telling the reader something they want to know. For example, in Chinatown, revelations are withheld, but inform everything. Don’t make this frustrating, and it also can’t be the Big Secret.
  • Raising the stakes
  • Reveals – anagnorisis. Foreground action. Something that has previously been hidden and which changes everything about the story. Example: “Luke, I am your father” in Star Wars.
  • Literalize the metaphor – a classic fantasy and science fiction device
  • Pyrrhic victory – A combination of triumph and tragedy. Example: nova.
  • Narrative hook – Can be at the beginning of end of a chapter.
  • Frame story or framing device – Example: the cafeteria scene in Pulp Fiction.
  • Reversal – peripateia. Example: The Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams has four reversals in the last chapter.

Rhetorical Devices

  • Flashback – Usually takes the form of a flashback to backstory.
  • Cliffhanger – Old fashioned, but enjoyable. Example: Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  • Irony
  • Parody
  • Pastiche
  • Unreliable narrator – Example: The Magus by John Fowles.
  • Symbolism
  • Inclue-ing – Smooth and graceful exposition. Example: Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. While the protagonist is repairing the spacesuit, we find out everything about its mechanisms that we will need later when he's on the Moon.
  • Infodump
  • Defamiliarization – Taking something familiar and making it strange.
  • Chekhov’s gun

An advanced technique often practiced by Hemingway is to take out every unnecessary thing and one necessary one. Examples: the abortion in “Hills Like White Elephants”, the shellshock in “Great Big Twohearted River”. Similar examples include Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison, and Passage to India by E.M. Forster.


Tags: plot devices, rhetorical devices, taos toolbox

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