MacGuffins, villains’ plans, Bellamys, and broomsticks are some of the most common types of plot devices. Do you know how to use them?
You have some great characters and a fantastic idea for a story, but how do you keep it moving? How do you keep that story going to page 110 and make sure all of those pages are exciting?
A plot device.
For some reason, plot devices have developed a bad reputation over the years, and I suspect it’s because they are often used incorrectly. Sometimes they feel arbitrary or pasted on from the outside… because they were! Instead of having a plot device that is organic and grows naturally from the story and characters (usually through outlines or some other form of pre-writing), writers often make up plot devices on the fly to solve some story problem or get past a dead end. Like a gratuitous car chase shoved into the screenplay at the last minute because nothing exciting has happened for a while, these unplanned plot devices almost never ring true. Better to have a “built-in” plot device than something you come up with on the spot.
Some of you are probably wondering what a plot device is: A top-secret weapon that only writers know about? A machine that generates plots? That dude the woman you love is going to marry tomorrow if you don’t grow up and tell her you’re sorry for all the mistakes you have made? All of the above?
A plot device is a character, situation or object that moves the story forward or creates conflict. Without some sort of plot device, your story is likely to stall out before you reach the end. Let’s take a look at some common plot devices and how they work to keep your story moving:
The Villain’s Plan
The most common way to get your story moving is with an active antagonist. In my book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting, I note that the most important part of an action or thriller screenplay is the villain’s plan—but an active antagonist is critical in almost every genre. In a comedy like Bad Teacher, the story would lose steam without ultra-nice teacher Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch) doing everything possible to get Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) in trouble for being a bad teacher. Miss Squirrel starts the film by reporting to the principal that Halsey’s class is watching movies all day, and escalates the conflict throughout the story until she accuses Halsey of cheating on the standardized tests. As in My Best Friend’s Wedding where Diaz was the active antagonist, just because a character is the antagonist doesn’t mean she’s bad. Squirrel is a nice person and a competent teacher … and those positive traits make her the antagonist in the story of a bad teacher. I probably don’t have to explain Horrible Bosses—but Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston do a great job of making things worse in every scene and forcing our protagonists to do something. Like Bad Teacher, the hit Bridesmaids also has a competent rival as the antagonist—wealthy bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) who is well-organized while protagonist Annie (Kristen Wiig) is a complete mess. Comedies, rom-coms and dramas usually rely on an active antagonist who brings escalating conflict to keep the story going.
It’s much easier to see how the villain’s plan works in action films like X-Men: First Class (Rose Byrne as the CIA agent) and thrillers like TV’s Damages (Rose Byrne as the new lawyer/victim in the firm) and horror films like Insidious (Rose Byrne as the loyal wife). The antagonists have a goal they are actively working to achieve, and the protagonist must stop them.
As strange as this fact may seem, the most important character in your script is not going to be the protagonist, it’s usually going to be the antagonist—he or she brings the conflict. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is teaching college when the government guys come to him for help. The Nazis are after the Lost Ark and, if they get it, they will have an unstoppable army and win World War II. There is no story without the villain and the villain’s plan. Before the Nazis showed up with their plan, Indy wasn’t searching for the Ark, he was teaching college. The villain’s plan is not only what kicks the story into gear, it’s what keeps it moving for the rest of the screenplay.
Your antagonist must be actively trying to accomplish something, because it takes two to tangle. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we have that Nazi with the fancy coat hanger who will do anything to get the Ark. But just as Indy is working for our government, there is a counterpart working for the Nazis: Belloq. Though Hitler may be behind the scheme, he’s not a character in the movie… so Indy tangles with Belloq and Nazi Major Toht.
Belloq is the villain who defines our hero—it would only take a nudge to put Indy into the darkness. This specific villain is important to the story because he gives us theme and Indy’s emotional conflict and many of the great scenes in the film where Indy is faced with choices that pit his emotional side against his curiosity about the Ark. The villain brings the conflict, and the conflict forces the hero to struggle with his or her emotional problem… the thing that defines that person as a character. The villain’s plan is what keeps the plot in motion and brings the protagonist’s character to the surface. This is probably the most common plot device.
A term coined by Terry Rossio (co-writer of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Shrek) for a plot device where the protagonist must achieve a small goal in order to achieve a larger goal. A story with steps. It’s Column 30 at Wordplayer.com, and Terry does a much better job of explaining than I can. The example he uses is from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy must steal the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick before the Wizard will send her home. Another example is the headpiece of the staff in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can’t find the location of the Ark without taking the staff to the model of the city where the sun will shine through the headpiece and the beam will create an “X marks the spot.” So Indy and Major Toht fight for possession of the staff headpiece before they can find the Ark and fight for that. Broomsticks are common in fantasy and quest stories where the protagonist may need a special sword or potion in order to battle the wizard or dragon or whatever. Sometimes you may have multiple broomsticks—the National Treasure movies are great examples of this technique. Make sure your “broomsticks” are logical and organic, and try to plant them early in the story so that it doesn’t seem as if you are making up the plot complication off the top of your head. If we know from the beginning that we will need the staff to find the location of the Ark, it won’t seem like padding when the protagonist has to search for it.
One of the standard characters in a romantic comedy is the “Bellamy,” named after Ralph Bellamy from His Girl Friday. This is the romantic rival that fuels the plot by creating conflict. The Bellamy is a symbolic character—in a rom-com, the couple splits up, or maybe has never been together in the first place: How do you show that the love interest is rejecting the protagonist? At the end, how do you show that the love interest is choosing the protagonist? What you need is a romantic rival, someone who symbolizes a life without the protagonist for the love interest. Enter the Bellamy (which sounds like a really weird kung fu film). This is the guy or gal the love interest is either already engaged to or begins dating after the break-up.
In His Girl Friday, female news reporter Hildy (Rosalind Russell) is quitting the business to marry insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Bellamy), and her boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) realizes he loves her and will lose her unless he does something. Without the Bellamy, nothing happens. The Bellamy is what gets in the protagonist’s way of winning the love interest back. The strangest Bellamy ever is Otto, the blow-up pilot in Airplane! Usually, it is someone who is the opposite of the protagonist in some way, and the differences help to define each character and create a thematic choice for the love interest. Modern rom-coms may not use a Bellamy, as they usually have some sort of high-concept plot device that both brings the couple together and pulls them apart, like fate in Serendipity and memory loss in 50 First Dates and national radio call-in shows in Sleepless in Seattle. When Hugh Grant is racing to some church to prevent the leading lady from marrying someone… that someone is the plot device known as a Bellamy.
The MacGuffin is a physical device that drives the story, the thing that everyone wants to get their hands on. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one, but the Lost Ark is also a good example. The term comes from Alfred Hitchcock, who once defined a MacGuffin as a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland … but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands … hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin! Except, there’s a MacGuffin in almost every Hitchcock movie.
North by Northwest has two MacGuffins—the little pre-Columbian statue that villain Van Damm is determined to buy at the auction (because it is filled with top-secret microfilm) and the CIA spy George Kaplan whom everyone has confused protagonist Roger Thornhill for. So, we have a double MacGuffin: Thornhill must find Kaplan, and Kaplan is chasing Van Damm to get the pre-Columbian statue and microfilm.
The MacGuffin drives the story. Where would The Maltese Falcon be without the Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story… but Hitchcock noted that even though it drives the story, what it is doesn’t matter very much. In North by Northwest, we have that pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the U.S.—and delivering it to the Soviets. The CIA must stop him and recover that microfilm, and Thornhill ends up being the guy in the middle. So, the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue by the end of the movie, and the microfilm that is inside it. The film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has been up to since the very first frame and why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan, the only man who can get Thornhill off the hook. So the microfilm is really why they are trying to kill Thornhill.
What is on the microfilm? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is about), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Thornhill what’s on the microfilm takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines), and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off.
CIA spy George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Thornhill is chasing? He doesn’t exist. He’s a decoy set up by the CIA to keep suspicion away from their real agent who is in deep cover.
Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, the letters of transit in Casablanca, the identity of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, the ring in The Lord of the Rings, and all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must possess, which propel the plot forward, are MacGuffins. In Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, the MacGuffin is a tune that is really a code. In The 39 Steps, it’s a formula that Mr. Memory has memorized. The more interesting and unusual your MacGuffin, the better!
I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm, but we live in a post-CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that microfilm. The cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high-concept substitute. If the MacGuffin is some high-concept device, then you can have a standard non-high-concept thriller (or action or whatever) movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in my opinion, a non-high-concept, action-adventure story, but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that lightning shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin something exciting and cool rather than just a plot device because it adds production value. I have an unpublished novel from decades ago about good-guy spies and bad-guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the ìfreon bombî that flash-freezes everything in a five-mile radius. The opening chapter had a test on a tropical island which froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when touched. That visual raised the stakes and made the story more interesting than ìjust microfilm.î One of the great things about making the MacGuffin something specific is that you can create some great high-concept element that will raise the stakes and elevate the excitement of your screenplay. If everyone is after something, it’s a good idea to make that something valuable.
There are other kinds of plot devices, and many are genre-specific. Mysteries depend on clues and red herrings and suspects to fuel the story. I covered that genre and all of those elements in the November/December 2005 issue (Vol. 11, No. 6). I’ve seen too many indie dramas with a “Dying Grandmother”—the one character who believes in the protagonist’s talent dies—to ever want to see another. Any element that creates conflict that keeps the story engine going and can escalate the threat or raise the stakes is, technically, a plot device. Make sure you introduce the devices early in the story so that they seem natural and organic. You don’t want them to feel like you just threw them in there to pad the story, like one of those pointless car chases from bad summer movies. Don’t let your plot devices fall into the wrong hands!