When it comes to plot devices, few invoke more fear and suspense than a good old-fashioned death trap.
The death trap reveals the true depths of a villain’s evil nature. It’s also an opportunity for a protagonist to show off just how cunning they really are—or for the author to include a thrilling deus ex machina right at the moment the reader thinks that everything is going to fall apart.
If you’re writing a mystery or thriller, including a death trap could be just the thing for taking your readers to the edge of their seats. Here’s what to know about this tricky and creative plot device, including some well-known death trap examples in popular literature.
What Is a Death Trap?
Widely used in literature, film, and TV, a death trap is a plot device in which the villain of a story has captured the protagonist and is ready to enact some sort of sadistic or elaborate plan for their demise. To the reader or viewer, it appears like the protagonist is surely going to die at the hands of the villain. However, thanks to ingenuity (or, just as often, sheer luck), the story’s hero is able to escape the death trap and the clutches of the villain who so badly wants them dead.
The death trap accomplishes a few things. Perhaps most notably, it brings tension to the story, creating suspense and fear in the reader or viewer and making them question whether the protagonist is really as heroic as they’ve been led to believe. It also usually serves an expository purpose, with the villain taking the time to explain their motives or another key piece of information to a hero who they think is finally done for.
In some cases, the character in the death trap is not the protagonist themselves but someone close to them. In this way, the death trap still manages to make us think the hero is going to lose in some big way to the villain—even if that’s rarely, if ever, how things actually turn out.
What Is a Plot Device in Literature?
While we’re on the subject of plot devices, it might be helpful to recap what they are and how they function in a story.
A plot device, also called a storytelling device, is anything that drives a story forward. This can be a situation, a character, or even the smallest of seemingly insignificant details (see: Chekhov’s gun). What’s important is that the device, whatever it happens to be, moves the narrative along and reveals something that the reader didn’t know before.
Of course, plot devices don’t only occur in literature. Anywhere you have a plot, you’re going to have plot devices. Examples of plot devices that you’ll find in books, movies, plays, and other media include big reveals and cliffhangers, as well as flashbacks, red herrings, and the subject we’re diving into here: the elusive death trap.
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Famous Examples of Literary Death Traps
What do a lot of the best thrillers have in common? An epic death trap, with a hero who seems poised to meet destruction and a villain who appears to have finally gotten their evil plan into action.
You can find well-written death traps in a lot of psychological thrillers, as well as mystery and horror novels. Here are a few of the most famous examples.
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe
In one of Poe’s most renowned short stories, an unnamed protagonist finds himself bound by rope to a slab beneath a swinging, bladed pendulum that is slowly but surely lowering toward his chest. He escapes by luring mice to the rope with a piece of meat, eventually succeeding in getting the mice to eat through the rope and set him free—right before the pendulum reaches him, of course.
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming
For a brilliant international superspy, Fleming’s James Bond sure does have a way of finding himself in precarious situations. In the novel Live and Let Die, that situation takes place when Bond and his lover, the psychic medium Solitaire, find themselves being lowered into a pool inhabited by man-eating sharks. In true superspy fashion, Bond manages to free them both with his watch-turned-rotary-saw, making a quick and convenient escape right in the nick of time.
The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In this Sherlock Holmes short story, Doyle places engineer Victor Hatherley in a hydraulic press that’s promising to crush him to pieces in short order. Hatherley’s escape from this death trap comes in the form of a deus ex machina when an unexpected co-conspirator of the villains opens up a side panel and gives Hatherley an exit from what was otherwise a sure death.
How to Write a Death Trap
There are two must-have elements of any death trap: It must be a deadly situation that the hero or someone the hero cares about seems completely unable to escape from, and, just as importantly, the character must make their escape and survive—usually just at the moment the reader believes that all hope is lost.
Beyond these confines, you definitely have quite a bit of leeway in how you construct your own death trap. As you work out the details though, keep these general guidelines in mind.
Set the Scene
Not all near-death scenes are death traps. What’s notable about this type of plot device is that the trap is uniquely set for a character by the villain, rather than the character just stumbling into it on their own. Likewise, literary death traps tend to be quite elaborate, as illustrated by the swinging pendulums, shark-infested waters, and hydraulic press above. Let your imagination go wild here, and try to set the scene with a trap that’s appropriately sadistic to what your villain might come up with.
If you want to create suspense, you have to make the reader believe that the character really is doomed. This brings a lot of tension to the scene and to your story as a whole. Don’t rush the escape, and really try to make it seem like the hero has no way out—even if you know they actually do.
The Villain’s Speech
A lot of great death traps feature a literary trope known as “the villain’s speech,” which is when the villain, thinking they’ve won, takes their time explaining their evil plan in detail to a tied up or otherwise condemned protagonist. Oftentimes, this speech gives the reader key insights into the villain’s motives and background, serving as not just a plot device but as an expository element that gives more meaning to the relationship between good and evil in the story.
The Great Escape
A crucial part of death traps is that they don’t actually result in death. Have an escape plan ready to go for your hero, regardless of how out-there it might be. If James Bond can turn his watch into a rotary saw, your hero can find some impressive way to get themselves out of their own unfortunate scenario.
Do the Death Trap Justice
There’s something inherently campy about the death trap, based as it is in the pop culture trope of a character tied to the tracks with a train fast approaching. As you write your own version of this popular plot device, try to push the limits of your creativity and go a bit bigger and bolder than you might do otherwise. Death traps are thrill-based entertainment at its finest, intended to get the reader to a point where they’re holding their breath and anticipating the worst. Use the scene as a place to really put your writing skills to work, and see just how imaginative—and just how evil—you can really get.
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