Often, what makes an incredible story isn’t just the events that transpire, it’s the way those events are revealed. This process doesn’t happen by magic or chance—the best writers make smart, thoughtful use of storytelling devices to make their readers hang on every word. And if you’re looking to craft stronger stories, you’ll want to add these tools to your belt, too.
Read on to learn about what storytelling devices are, what purpose they serve in creative writing, and some of the most common techniques you can start using today.
What Are the Techniques of Storytelling?
There are five elements of storytelling that every tale needs at the core: a plot, characters, a setting, a conflict or challenge, and a message or purpose.
Everything else is about how you tell the story well. For instance, you have to decide what plot structure you want to use, perhaps tapping into common narrative structures or archetypes to create a lasting piece of work.
If the basic elements are your ingredients and the story structure brings it all together into a solid foundation, storytelling or plot devices are the decorations, the sprinkles on top. Storytelling devices are anything you use to help drive the story forward: how you reveal information, direct attention, and make the reader feel what you want them to feel.
9 Plot Devices to Try Out
This list barely scratches the surface of all the plot devices available to you, but here are a handful of ideas to start inspiring your storytelling. While we refer to “the reader” throughout this section, these devices can be used in writing, filmmaking, or any other storytelling format.
1. Checkhov’s Gun
Checkhov’s Gun is a detail that seems insignificant at first, but ends up being critically important to your story. It comes from playwright Anton Checkov’s idea that every element in a scene should be used at some point in the plot—if it’s not used, it shouldn’t be there. So, for example, the glasses of water in Signs at first seem like a random character oddity, but they end up being what kills the aliens.
When to Use Checkhov’s Gun
Including a Checkhov’s Gun early in your story can be a great way to ensure your resolution doesn’t feel completely out of the blue. It can also serve as a fun sort of foreshadowing to give your readers a subtle hint of what’s to come.
A cliffhanger is an unresolved ending. By stopping a story right in the middle of a dramatic event, you tap into the deep human need to know how a situation ends, therefore hooking the reader to stick around or come back for more.
When to Use Cliffhanger
Use cliffhangers any time you want to build a suspenseful tone. Cliffhangers can be used at any natural breaking point—the end of a scene, chapter, episode, or book in a series—to keep the audience wanting more. Occasionally, you can also use cliffhanger in your final ending as a way to leave room for interpretation, such as how the end of Inception left audiences uncertain whether the main character was in a dream or reality.
3. Death Trap
Many stories involve a villain trying to harm, kill, or otherwise get in the way of the protagonist. While, in real life, they may try to do this in the most efficient way possible, that doesn’t make for a particularly exciting plot. Instead, storytellers often use a death trap where they create an elaborate (and often slow) method for offing the main character—like the classic example of someone being tied to the train tracks—usually leaving just enough time for the main character to figure out an escape plan.
When to Use Death Trap
When you’ve built up suspense around this face-off between your protagonist and antagonist, you don’t want to resolve it too quickly, and a death trap is a great way to keep the audience wondering what will happen next. As a bonus, they’ll feel extra satisfied when the hero makes a cunning escape.
4. Deus Ex Machina
This storytelling device has been around since Greek and Roman theatre (hence the distinctly Latin name). It’s a way of resolving a dramatic situation with some powerful, outside force—historically a god—coming in and saving the day, often when things seem most hopeless.
When to Use Deus Ex Machina
Often, writers use deus ex machina as a lazy way of resolving a situation they can’t figure out how to get their characters out of. For more effective (and believable) storytelling, try to use this technique only when it really is the best way to wrap up your story, such as to create an interesting plot twist or show the true power of one of your characters. You want it to feel surprising, but also plausible and not completely out of the blue. For instance, one highly controversial use of this technique is in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Sam are rescued from Mount Doom by giant eagles that haven’t really been part of the story before that point.
Flashbacks involve interrupting the narrative flow to reveal a past event that’s relevant to the story at hand. This can be a way to give backstory and context, or to reveal information at just the right moment. Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, used flashbacks throughout to reveal how the protagonist knew all the answers to the quiz show questions.
When to Use Flashback
Anytime you want to give some relevant character backstory, consider using a flashback to weave it in. It’s a perfect way to reveal a surprising bit of information just when you want the reader to know it.
Foreshadowing is when the writer will give subtle hints about something that’s going to happen later in the story. Sometimes this is obvious and can help the reader start to guess where the story might be going—while sometimes it’s more subtle, like a single line or a small detail, to reward the reader who’s been paying close attention. For example, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke has a vision of wearing Darth Vader’s mask before it’s revealed that Vader is his father.
When to Use Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing can build tension, tease the reader with what might happen next, and ensure any plot twists don’t feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. It can also just be a fun way to include small clues for people who are really paying attention.
7. In Medias Res
While many stories involve some sort of exposition to set up a situation before getting into the meat of things, ones that begin in medias res (Latin for “in the midst of things”) start in the middle of the plot or action. This non-linear storytelling device can be an effective way to hook the reader from the start, making them wonder how your characters got to this point. Think how the first scene of Breaking Bad opens on Walter White running from the cops with no explanation—we only learn later how he got to this point.
When to Use In Medias Res
If you’re looking to create energy and excitement from the start of your story, using in medias res is a compelling way to do it. It can also be a useful tactic if you need to prove to the reader why they should be interested in a story before spending time on exposition.
8. Race Against Time
Also sometimes called the “ticking time bomb,” this plot device creates urgency for your characters. It could be a literal ticking bomb, or simply a consequence for not achieving their goal in time, such as in Back to the Future when Marty McFly must complete an action at exactly midnight to return to the present.
When to Use Race Against Time
This plot device creates an extra layer of heart-racing suspense in your story, since readers will worry whether the characters will make it in time. It can also be a way to create energetic pacing in your story, since events need to happen quickly.
9. Red Herring
A red herring is anything you use to misdirect the reader. This might be a character that you think is evil but is later shown to be good or a clue that you think is important but turns out to be irrelevant. For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, you’re made to think the entire book that Sirius Black is the bad guy, only to find out at the end that he was framed.
When to Use Red Herring
Include red herrings when you want to keep the reader guessing until the very end (such as in mystery or thriller stories), or when you want to make the reader believe something untrue so you can create a plot twist later on.
Practice Your Storytelling Skills!
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