Plot Devices to Complicate Your Story

You’re excited to write an upcoming story, but the plot seems pretty simple from start to finish.

How can you make it more complicated to deepen your themes, lengthen the story, or leave your readers with plot twists that make their jaws drop?

Try a few of these devices to see what works for each story’s unique needs.

What Are Plot Devices?

Plot devices are any literary or narrative tools you use to further your story. Every writer uses them, even if you couldn’t pinpoint which plot devices are in your narrative.

Sometimes people think they’re just cliches, but that isn’t always the case. They can be expert tools that readers don’t recognize but fall in love with anyway. It depends on how you use them in each unique story.

Examples of Plot Devices

These are more than a few examples of plot devices you can consider during each short story, novella, or novel you write in the future. You don’t need to include each one in a story. Keep them in the back of your mind to weave a compelling narrative.

Add Motivation to Your Instigating Action

  • When the princess gets kidnapped at the start of your story, your hero will rescue her, but what’s the antagonist’s motivation for kidnapping her? If they’re in love with the hero and take their jealousy to the extreme or secretly know that the princess asked them for an escape plan to avoid marrying your hero, the plot is much more compelling.
  • You could add this detail anywhere in your plot, even in the first chapter.

Layer a Second Motivation Underneath an Action

  • After the princess is kidnapped, the hero starts their journey to rescue her. The reader finds out in the second chapter that the hero is being blackmailed to retrieve the princess and return her to their kingdom’s biggest rival to start a war.
  • This plot device can also help you defeat writer’s block, which may arise when your characters don’t have the necessary motivation to propel themselves forward through the plot.

Amplify the Original Problem

  • Your protagonist rescues the princess and brings her home, only to find out that she’s had a twin brother all this time who has been taken hostage by the antagonist in retaliation for the princess’ escape.
  • This hook keeps readers interested by spinning the story out further. It may also surprise them if they think your original conflict (the princess’ kidnapping) was the only event in your story.

Introduce a Second, More Evil Villain

  • The antagonist has kidnapped the princess for their own motivation, but the reader discovers in the middle of your story that they serve a more evil villain who holds a personal grudge against the princess’ father and wants his whole kingdom to suffer as revenge.
  • This appears in many stories because it promises either a wider world or a longer story. It opens doors for a trilogy or an ongoing short story series.

Create Conflict That Brings Your Protagonist to Their Rock Bottom

  • The protagonist rescues the princess and almost reaches their home kingdom, but she escapes. The king sends the protagonist to prison for their failure and sentences them to death in three days.
  • The reader will feel the hopelessness along with your protagonist, which is where you can create something that injects new hope into your plot (like a dramatic jailbreak thanks to the protagonist’s best friend).

Make a Character Betray Another

  • The protagonist reaches the princess with the help of their best friend, but the princess stabs the protagonist in the back by trading their best friend for herself through an unbreakable vow

Reveal an Unreliable Narrator

  • Your protagonist agrees to rescue the princess for the sake of the kingdom, but the second or third chapter reveals that they are really on a mission to kill the princess for personal revenge against the king.
  • There are a few things to remember when writing an unreliable narrator: you should plan this from the beginning so the narrative lines up with what actually happens. Your narrator should keep a few secrets but still remain likable, so your readers trust them up until the truth gets revealed.

Disclose That the Villain Has Known Everything the Whole Time

  • Your protagonist and princess escape, but the villain factored that into their plan to start a war and have their forces waiting outside of her castle when they arrive home.
  • When readers feel their stomachs drop because the hero hasn’t actually outsmarted the villain, it’s like the mental equivalent of riding a roller coaster. There’s a slight adrenaline rush that makes them want to read more. It automatically amps up what the protagonist will have to do to defeat the antagonist, which excites readers.

Introduce Sudden Regret That Changes a Character’s Arc

  • The protagonist has to leave their best friend behind to ensure the princess’ escape, but in leaving them, the protagonist realizes they’ve been in love with their best friend the entire time. Regret motivates them to head back for their best friend and risk their life twice as soon as the princess is home safely.
  • People can relate to regret, especially if the consequences of a wrong choice lead to guilt or a change in the character’s life. It motivates them to read and helps them relate.

Temporarily Kill a Character

  • The princess kills the villain with some help from your protagonist, so they think they’re safe. On their way back home, the villain sets a trap for them in the woods because they actually survived the attack.
  • Surprise deaths can become a cliche, but they’re also a useful plot device if used sparingly. Use this device too often and your stories will become predictable.
  • Faking deaths too often also removes any real consequences from drastic choices or actions taken in your story. You want readers to trust you so they experience stories more vividly.

Try Using Chekov’s Gun

  • Before leaving for the princess, your protagonist gets a potion made by a family member. The directions? “Use it in your moment of greatest need.” The protagonist uses it later when they’re facing the villain or after hitting rock bottom, so the potion becomes a plot device that instigates your second or third act.
  • Chekov’s gun can be a cliche or a tool. It depends on how often you use it. You also have to include a pay-off. If no one ever uses the “gun,” readers will feel like your story is missing something. The ending won’t feel right because there won’t be the satisfaction the reader is looking for.

Accelerate the Plot

  • Your reader thinks the plot is all about rescuing the princess, but she returns home in the first 100 pages. The real plot begins with choices or actions made during her rescue, which unravel into a much larger story/world event.
  • Stories need to speed up and down to maintain a reader’s interest. You wouldn’t want to read something that trudges along or flies by without a chance to get emotionally invested.
  • If you’re interested in learning more, you can study pacing and how elements like scene breaks, chapter breaks, and dialogue influence it.

Remember Helpful Plot Devices

You likely won’t be able to use all of these plot devices in a single story. You may not even have the right plot for more than one. However, it’s good to review devices like these to inspire your story development.

Consider what you’re writing and what dynamics your characters or plot present to decide if any of these tricks could enhance your writing.

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