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What is a plot device?

By BBC Maestro

Last updated: 14 April 2023

Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, there are certain plot devices that can help to drive the story forward – and some you may want to avoid. Let’s look at what they are and how you can use them.

What is a plot device?

Plot devices are tools used by writers to move the plot or story along, develop drama or mystery, or introduce new elements to the story. They can be used in all sorts of novels and television, so whether you’re writing a thriller or developing a sitcom, a knowledge of plot devices may come in handy.

If you’re an avid reader or a fan of TV dramas, you may recognise some of the most common plot devices, like flashbacks and plot twists. And if so, you’ll know that when they’re used well, they can leave you with a lasting impression of the book or TV show. But on the other hand, when plot devices aren’t executed well, they can leave readers or viewers feeling unsatisfied.

Popular plot devices

From epic quests to pesky red herrings, here are some of the most frequently used plot devices in short stories, novels, plays, TV shows and films – and some examples of where you might have seen them before.

Red herrings

A red herring is a plot detail that seems crucial but later turns out to be nothing more than a distraction from what’s important. The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, features a red herring when the murderer writes the word ‘rache’ at the crime scene. This means ‘revenge’ in German, which leads the police to mistakenly believe that the murderer was German.

Red herrings can lead both the characters and the readers on a wild goose chase, chasing information that isn’t important. Or alternatively, it may not direct the action, but simply leaves the reader believing that something is important to the story when it’s not – in other words, it can be used as a distraction technique.

During the process of writing, you may naturally end up with some red herrings in your story. In his BBC Maestro course, Writing Popular Fiction, Lee Child describes his ‘gameshow approach’ of letting actions unfold in the first half, and then using the second half to make sense of them and move towards a conclusion. That means, he says, that you may end up with a couple of plot points that you weren’t able to use:

“You’ve got two options. One is that you go back and take them out and nobody will ever know they were there. The other, which I think is more natural, is to keep them in and allow them to be perceived as red herrings. They were there. They didn’t amount to anything. That is very common in crime fiction, as it is in life. There are things that don’t add up in the end. That doesn’t mean you can go back and edit them out.”

A detective's room

Plot voucher

‘Plot voucher’ is a term defined by film critic Nick Lowe to describe an object that’s given to a character early in the action, but it doesn’t become critical until later in the story. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, Professor Dumbledore leaves items to each of the three main characters that later become vital in helping them to achieve their mission.

The concept of a plot voucher derives from the theory of Chekov’s Gun. Anton Chekov wrote that objects and characters should only be introduced to a story if they’re going to be used in the narrative at a later point. When you use a plot voucher in this way, it can help to create a sense of foreshadowing and anticipation for the action to come later in the story.


Sometimes called a plot coupon (another term coined by Nick Lowe), the term MacGuffin was first used by British screenwriter Angus MacPhail and was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock.

A MacGuffin is an object or event that’s necessary to drive the plot forward but the object itself is insignificant. Using this plot device can act as a catalyst for the plot, motivating the characters to spring into action and advance the plot. It can also be used to reveal aspects of the characters’ personalities.

One early example of a MacGuffin in film can be seen in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, made in 1935. The MacGuffin here is the titular 39 steps, which the hero Richard Hannay spends the film trying to find the meaning of.

A more recent example comes from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, in which two hitmen are given the task of retrieving a briefcase that contains a mysterious object – but the audience never finds out what’s inside the briefcase.


A quest is when a character is on a journey to find something, and it’s usually a long and arduous journey during which the character encounters many difficulties and obstacles.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has one of the most famous quests in literature, with the entire plot focused on Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the One Ring.

Quests help to drive the narrative, but they can also reveal hidden depths to characters, as Malorie Blackman explains in her BBC Maestro course, Writing For Young Adults:

“Their reaction to the quest offer itself reveals character. For example, you might create a character who’s very arrogant and feels they can do anything. You might then put them in a situation where they are humbled because they find out they aren’t as competent or efficient as they thought they were. That’s a really lovely character transformation to see and I think, the harder the journey, the more satisfying it is to read.”

A series of maps

Love triangle

This is a common plot device, in which there are three characters, and two are both in love with the other. As these two characters compete for the affection of the third, it helps to move the plot along and builds character development.

Although many of us only remember Romeo and Juliet when thinking about Shakespeare’s play, there was actually a love triangle at play, between the two titular characters and Count Paris, who was also a suitor of Juliet’s.

Plot twists

A plot twist takes the narrative in a new, unexpected direction. It can either come during the story or at the end of the action. For it to be effective, it must be believable – and this can often be achieved through foreshadowing that’s introduced early.

Jed Mercurio discusses this in his BBC Maestro course, Writing Drama for Television, saying that you should:

“Plant the seeds for an unexpected and unforeseen escape. If you do that well, the audience will go with it, they’ll be impressed because they didn’t see it coming, and they’ll accept the escape as entirely plausible.”

Flashbacks and flash forwards

These are common narrative devices that are used to tell the story, revealing details that occurred before or after the story being told. This can help readers to understand characters’ motivations, as well as revealing key plot points without relying too heavily on exposition.

As Alan Moore explains in his BBC Maestro course, Storytelling:

“There’s no reason why you have to start your story at the beginning and move mechanically to the end. You can start at the end and then fill in the background with flashbacks. You can start wherever you want.”


blurred lights

Deus ex machina

This is when a problem that previously seemed unsolvable is suddenly resolved, thanks to something unexpected happening.

One notable example of this plot device in film can be found in Christopher Reeve’s 1978 film, Superman. Towards the end of the film, Lois Lane is in a very precarious situation – but Superman swoops in to save the day with a previously unreleased power of being able to reverse time. This brings Lois back to life and reverses all the damage caused by the missile and earthquake.

Jed Mercurio warns against using deus ex machina. Although coincidences often happen in real life, stories that rely heavily on coincidence don’t feel believable:

“In drama, because of the willing suspension of disbelief, the audience does not accept coincidences. They feel it’s a cheat. There must always be a dramatic reason for a person to run into an old friend. In the real world, after you say goodbye, you may never see them again. The encounter has no impact on the storyline of your life. But in drama, every event should have an impact. Every event needs to be connected.”

He goes on to explain:

“Sometimes deus ex machina can work, but it is best avoided for many reasons. The bigger the effect of your coincidence, the more it resembles deux ex machina – an unexpected solution swoops in and saves the day – the bigger the disappointment for your audience who will feel cheated.”


Plot devices can help to develop your characters, add drama and tension to your story, and are essential to driving your narrative forward – but they can also be overused, and may lead your audiences to feel disappointed if they aren’t executed well. One final piece of advice on using these tools comes from Alan Moore, who suggests immediately dropping a device as soon as you become aware you’ve used it before.

Want to find out more about the skill and craft of writing from experts in the field, including Alan Moore, Malorie Blackman, Lee Child, and Jed Mercurio? Browse our range of online writing courses and start improving your writing today.

A collection of BBC Maestri including Julia Donaldson, Alan Moore and Edgar Wright displayed alongside some gift boxes with orange bows

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