Plot Devices

Storytelling devices to advance your narrative.

Misha Tenenbaum avatar
Written by Misha Tenenbaum
Updated over a week ago

Finding ways to move a films narrative forward can be challenging, but filmmakers will often employ the usage of Plot Devices to aid in the story's progression. A plot device can take many forms, but at its core they are commonly used storytelling mechanics to advance the plot. At times these tropes run the risk of feeling cliché if it feels too forced at its occurrences in the story. However, if the filmmakers can find ways in which the plot device can occur organically within the story's characters, setting, and events, they can be powerful tools that may go undetected by the viewer.

There are many plot devices concepts that exist, but these are a few worth mentioning:


A MacGuffin is a plot device, often associated with Alfred Hitchcock in coining the term, that is used in storytelling to help establish an objective that motivates the main character to move forward within the story. It is typically seen as an item, person, or goal to obtain. However, it is later discovered in the story that this “goal” is irrelevant and that there is a deeper objective for our protagonist.

A great way to figure out if a protagonist’s objective is a MacGuffin is to imagine replacing the “objective” with something else. Would it be the same story? If so, then the objective established at first is a MacGuffin.

Red Herring

A Red Herring is a type of narrative misdirection that presents the audience with a misleading or false clue commonly found in film genres such as mystery or thrillers. Through this technique the audience tries to guess the outcome, engaging them mentally in the storytelling culminating in what is hopefully a rewarding surprise at the reveal.

Plot Voucher

The Plot Voucher is the antithesis of a Red Herring. This is a character or object that is introduced early on in the film in which its set-up will pay-off later in the story.

This compliments a related a writing concept known as Chekhov's Gun derived from the writings of playwright Anton Chekhov. In one of his writings, he states," If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In essence, every story element presented to the audience must serve a purpose and irrelevant elements should be removed.

Ticking Clock

Sometimes also nicknamed the Ticking Time Bomb, a Ticking Clock is a common story trope that helps to increase the stakes and tension for the main character to meet their goal by a specific time. This can also help the audience to become more actively and emotionally involved in the story, as they become concerned over whether or not the protagonist will beat the clock.

The ticking clock is usually established early on within the film where the main character learns they have a limited time to reach their goal, whether that be finding authentic tortillas in an hour or saving the world from an asteroid in 24 hours. No matter how the ticking clock is set up, it is a story element that regularly works to create a sense of urgency.

Deus ex Machina

Latin for “god from the machine" Deus ex Machina is when a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and unexpectedly resolved with an easy solution by an unlikely occurrence. Many times this method of storytelling can feel too convenient, overly simplistic, and unrewarding to the audience.

In Medias Res

Another frequently used latin phrase, In Media Res, meaning "into the midst of things" is a plot device that causes the audience to start in the middle of the plot or action. This can be a creative way to engage your audience in becoming an active participant in piecing together the film's narrative, as this non-linear technique leads the audience to question how the character or characters found themselves in this situation.

This is a useful technique to energize the start of your film or it can be used to hook the audience with curiosity or questions before you begin setting up the film's exposition.


A Cliffhanger occurs when the story ends in an intriguing abrupt manner sometimes at the end of a sequence or episode often with the protagonist or featured character(s) left in a difficult situation that may seem unsolvable. This device is frequently used in television and various episodic media formats where you want to leave the audience with a compelling question about the story's resolution that will get them to return to the next installment in the series.

Read our blog Plot Devices That Are Often Used in Movies for even more information on this topic.

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