Plot Device

By Louis Lefaix

What was that suitcase doing in the film Pulp Fiction? Or how come a common bacteria on earth had devastating effects? Commonly films may have misleading tricks to subvert the narrative or even clues to the ending dropped through the story. These elements appear both in cinema and literature, but very few of us may well know their names. The Forth wall? Chekhov’s gun? Find out more here as we look into this here in Plot Device.


Deus Ex Machina

First, we have the Greek phrase “Deus Ex Machina”. It translates to “god from the machine”. It originated in ancient Greek theatre as a reference to a style of ‘stage machinery’ that would bring the actors playing Gods in productions to and from the stage. Yet now it has rather a different meaning in modern-day cinema, it has become a Plot Device.

You know those moments towards the end of a film, all is lost…but out of nowhere comes a solution! When a hopeless situation is suddenly solved by an unexpected occurrence. That’s Ex Machina as it is now referred to.

The situation can be solved by a particular object or an event. But it can also provide comedic relief, but can also be seen sometimes as a weak ending.

An example of Ex Machina can be found in The Wizard of Oz by Victor Fleming (1939): When Dorothy accidentally splashed the Wicked Witch with water, it killed her; nobody knew that water was the witch’s weakness.

Or we also have one in War of the Worlds directed by Steven Spielberg (2005): The unstoppable aliens are overcome by common bacteria found on Earth. The solution to the hopeless situation, was under humanity’s eyes the entire time.

The first instance in writing comes from Medea by Euripide which is a Greek play (431 BCE):  Medea is the wronged lover of Jason, so she and her sons are to be banished to Corinth. In revenge, she kills Jason’s new wife and the wife’s father. But the god Helios appears as if out of nowhere, in a chariot and tows Medea and her children to Athens, fleeing Jason. This is a literal Deus Ex Machin. In fact, the chariot of the God Helios was towed by men and early ‘mechanics’ when originally shown in theatres.

The Fourth Wall

Our second Plot Device is the fourth wall. It is a conceptual barrier separating those presenting a form of communication and the audience. The term refers to the imaginary wall that would be at the front of the stage, separating the public from the performers. I.e, the three walls around the stage and the imaginary one between the stage and the audience.

Breaking the fourth wall is the action of doing or saying something that shows that both the presenters and the audience are aware of the artificiality of the piece. Again think of it like the actor breaks the artifice and turns and speaks to the audience and then goes straight back into the play. Or it could be a character in a film suddenly talking directly to the camera.

The fourth wall can be broken in a subtle way. For example, in Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960): Bates stares directly into the camera at the end of the movie, as if letting us into his ‘little secret’.

Or it can be broken in a more obvious way. Such as in Annie Hall, Woody Allen (1977): Here we follow the relationship between comedian Alvy Singer and nightclub singer Annie Hall. Alvy often breaks the 4th wall to comment on his relationship with Annie.

It can serve different purposes. In the film, American Psycho (2000), Patrick Bateman the protagonist, a wall street banker with a twisted mind constantly breaks the fourth wall, via his inner thoughts. This way, it gives the audience a look into his mind to help them understand his insanity.

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), is the story of a girl named Amélie whose childhood was suppressed by her Father’s mistaken concerns about her having a heart defect. She gets hardly any real-life contact with other people. This leads her to resort to her own fantastical world. She, later on, becomes a young woman and moves to the central part of Paris as a waitress. Her Breaking of the fourth wall gives a sense of sweetness to the character. It helps the audience understand her despite her frequent silence. It also allows the audience to form a bond with her.

This Plot Device can also serve comedy. For example, in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy show Fleabag, where there are multiple instances of this. Fleabag the protagonist often breaks from the scene to talk directly to the viewer as though in an invisible relationship with them. But in season two the priest (a long-established character) also acknowledges the cameras, he is the first other than Fleabag to do it.

In writing it is referred to as “asides” or “authorial interjections”. It may not be as common as in cinema, but it still is present. The most famous occurrence in English writing came from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). The main character Jane discovers herself, by finding love and independence.  At the end, the fourth wall is broken with the sentence “reader I married him”. She writes that she has been married for ten blissful years and that she is enjoying her life.  

Chekhov’s gun

This Plot Device is a narrative principle implying not introducing anything that won’t be eventually important to the plot. Every element in a story must be necessary, otherwise, they should be removed. The principle was first coined by Russian playwriter Anton Chekhov.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Anton Chekhov.

We observe this in most James Bond where a new gadget is introduced at the start of the movie, and it ends up being important later.

Chekhov’s gun can serve as a payoff. For instance, in The Fifth Element by Luc Besson (1997): At the start of the movie, Korben lights a cigarette, and in doing so makes clear that he now has only one match left. He uses that match at the end of the movie to start a fire.

But it can also serve as a subversion. For example, in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Shane Black (2005): throughout the film the protagonist is seen reading and carrying books. At the end, when he gets shot, he is holding the book over his heart. We expect it to stop the bullet, but it doesn’t, and he dies. 

We also find Chekhov’s gun in writing. In fact, it originated from Anton Chekhov’s writings such as The Seagull (1896): The main character carries a rifle onto stage, in the first act. He uses the rifle to commit suicide by the end of the play.

A MacGuffin

It’s an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters. Yet it’s ultimately unimportant, and irrelevant. The term was coined by Angus MacPhail an English screenwriter.  

Later, it was adopted by Alfred Hitchcock because he and MacPhail had worked together. Hitchcock believed that an audience anticipating a solution to a mystery would continue to follow the story. Even if the initial interest-grabber turns out to be irrelevant.

Here are examples of a MacGuffin in cinema:

A popular one is found in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994): Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, two hit men, are out to retrieve a briefcase. It was stolen from their employer, mob boss Marsellus Wallace. The briefcase is sought after by the different characters during the film. Yet we never see its contents.

We also have one in The Maltese Falcon by John Huston (1941): The main character detective Sam Spade is in pursuit of a mysterious, golden, Maltese falcon statuette. Just like the contents of Pulp Fiction’s briefcase, the statuette is never seen by the audience.

In literature now, we have the infamous grail in Percival, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (12th century): Here we have the quest for the holy grail, the cup with which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Percival, who is after the grail, is a member of the Round Table, alongside King Arthur. This is the first appearance of the Holy Grail in literature. It probably is the most prolific Macguffin in storytelling.

Next time you wonder why is that prop being used, or who is that odd person hanging around? You may just be aware of one of these plot devices before it rears its head towards the end.

if you enjoyed reading Device Plot why not read The Accord of Love here

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