But probably doesn’t.
Oh, literary devices… Let’s face it. Most writers didn’t realize they were going to spend their days crafting stories in high school English class.
Even if you did have an inkling, you still probably weren’t paying much attention to what Mr. Boring was saying because you were doodling and scribbling your stories on your college-ruled notebook paper. (I may or may not be exempt from that).
So, here are a few devices that I realized, in my later education and writing days, were actually rather important and paramount to writing stories and crafting novels and scripts. Hopefully my breakdown of them will be a bit more entertaining and interesting than Mr. Boring’s 12th grade lecture on The Iliad and Beowulf.
Let’s start with the fun Literary Devices
In Media Res
In Latin, it means “into the middle of things” and it dates back to the Greeks and their robes and epic poets. Its history stems back to an oral tradition of storytelling long before the Greeks and Romans dawned their togas and robes. Back when, if you didn’t grab your audience’s attention immediately, they’d either a) become bored and stop listening b) throw rotten food at your for entertainment or, better yet, tar and feather you or, c) beat you senseless with a blunt object like a stick. You either caught your audience’s attention and became an epic storyteller of your people or you were doomed to a life of failure and crop duties.
It’s a truth that still holds true today. You either get your reader’s attention or they leave your book – your writing – for good. So how do you write a story and use in media res?
Simply put, it means you jump right into the story and into the thick of things. You don’t have a beginning that turns into the middle and then ends. You jump head first into the middle of the story and go from there.
What about the beginning? (They seemed to ask).
With the use of in media res, the story features flashbacks to explore the beginning part of the story that is otherwise not present. This doesn’t mean a story with a prequel, which doesn’t constitute a story with in media res.
If you’re looking for easily recognizable examples, I’ll resort to movies. Think those cool, slick detective whodunnits and film noirs – they all start in the middle of a hunt for a psychopath or killer. Or, think about war movies. I can’t really think about one war movie (that is action-based, not romantic-based) that doesn’t start in the middle of the war. It wouldn’t be very entertaining or encapsulating to have to watch the USA from 1939 through 1943 just to get to the part where a bunch of soldiers go in search of a Private Ryan. Bor-ing! Oh, and a movie I recently watched with in media res applied? Hanna.
If you want to really grab your reader by the hands and keep them on the pages, try using this literary device.
The Deus & Diabolus Devices
There’s three I’m thinking of – two of which I am going to share and one that I am sure you might have heard for a few seconds in English class.
deus ex machina “god from the machine”
So this little curse of a plot device is again from the toga-wearing Greeks. There’s a pretty cool history to this about cranes and drunk poets, but I’ll just get to the good part.
Deus ex machina means that suddenly, from out of nowhere, a resolution to a problem is suddenly found from something that just suddenly appears in the story. There might even me the “tada” sound in the writer’s head as they write this. Generally, the use of this device equates to a literary cop out and lack of creative ingenuity. Bad form, writer person! Bad form. In short, you can probably – definitely do better.
There are quite a few well known books, movies, epic poems that use this plot device. My personal advice is not to do so. In fact, avoid this like the Seven Plagues. Run away screaming from this lazy excuse for a literary term. Are there instances where deus ex machina was used cleverly and awesomely? Sure.
But honestly, I can only think of a few: The Life of Brian (hilarious snarky whack at the plot device), Donnie Darko (exempt from almost all criticism from this writer), quite a few of the Harry Potter books (but hey, it’s freaking Harry Potter!), & the quite a few alien invasion movies/books like The War of the Worlds (I know what you’re thinking, but Signs is exempt from the use of this device because the *SPOILER* water that ends up defeating the aliens is foreshadowed and planted throughout the entire movie, from the first five minutes on).
diabolus ex machina “devil from the machine”
Okay, so I’m not too sure on the origins but this is the evil twin of deus ex machina. Instead of something suddenly appearing in a story that aids and saves the day (that was never heard of before) this is where something suddenly appears in the story that really *@#!s everyone over.
In short, this device really sucks. But, if you need evil to win to continue your story, series, saga – this might be a plot device to consider. But use wisely – if it isn’t completely unexpected and full of impact, you’ll fall short. Epically.
The only example that really sticks out in my mind is where – in Film as Lit Class – we were watching all these old war films (I guess the teacher was on a solider-kick or something) and I had been scribbling my own stories in the notebook for most of the week (hey, I still aced that class) except I watched one movie almost entirely – especially the end.
It’s the last two minutes of the story. Things are looking better for the lead guy. The war is almost over. He’s almost home. And then – a beautiful butterfly appears and dances about his gun and face. He hasn’t seen that kind of beauty in so long. He reaches out to admire the butterfly and –
The main character gets shot in the head by a sniper. The End.
That’s All Quiet on the Western Front and I promise you, the book is just as bad (or good).
I love Hitchcock. And, I love him for more-or-less inventing this plot device. Genius!
So basically, it’s something that motivates, pushes, drives the protagonist (maybe the antagonist, too) to do pretty much anything and everything to achieve it, protect it, own it – and there’s probably no explanation as to why – it is what it is and it is the object of everyone’s quest/journey/search.
The MacGuffin can be an object, a place, a person or, it can be something abstract like Fame or Fortune. And, though it technically has been a plot device well before Hitchcock coined it a MacGuffin, my love for Hitchcock has made me define it as such here. Besides, Hitchcockian is way too fun to say not to give him credit.
Ready for his alleged explanation of what a MacGuffin is?
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.
But seriously, a lot of thrillers, spy movies, and rescue-focused movies include a MacGuffin. Take a look at all the Indiana Jones movies if you’re really aching for a good example. Or, you can take a look at Hitchcock’s most refered to example – The 39 Steps.
Okay, if you’re a writer and don’t know who Anton Chekhov is, take a few moments and Google him (Wiki articles are valid on him and will probably lead you to this plot device named after him).
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Alright, so it probably was directed at plays but, this quote is applicable to all forms of creative writing. What does it mean? It means nothing should be put in your story that doesn’t serve a purpose. Chekov’s Gun is along the lines of foreshadowing but is a bit more concise and narrow in definition. It literally means that anything – and everything – in your story has a purpose and that you, as a writer, damn well better use them to serve those purposes.
Do you have to utilize this literary device? No. But it makes for damn good, riveting storytelling. Which, takes me back to Signs as an example. Those water glasses piling up? That baseball bat on the wall? Purposes served.
So Mid and Sequel got together and made a baby.
Tada! Midquel was born!
Honestly, I’m just including this fun little storytelling device because I love it. It’s fun. Just fun.
It’s the word used to describe a story that is set in the time period/reference of another story instead of being before or after it. This device is common in comic books and animated movies and some even credit this device to the Disney franchise.
I mean, they did make a Lion King 1 1/2….
Breaking the 4th Wall
I was a theatre nerd. Heck, I still am. I stage managed a few plays and then directed several more – most were musical theatre or pure drama.
This literary device was honed in the theatre and has extensive use there. It has also made its way into literature, TV, Film and comics.
What the heck is the 4th wall and where did the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd walls go?
Think of a theatrical stage. It’s a rectangle (for argument’s sake just go with it, I know this is very rudimentary) with 4 sides. You have the back wall (upstage) which is away from the audience, the left wall (stage right), the right wall (stage left), and then the imaginary wall/side that divides the stage from the audience (the 4th wall/downstage).
Breaking the 4th wall means stepping out of the bubble of the play/book/film/etc. and into the audience’s realm – hell, bash it down. Take a hammer to it. WRITER SMASH! In short, and plainly, it means you directly address the audience.
The Greeks did it first (or some argue that they did it before it was invented which, might very well be true) and Shakespeare was a big, big fan of it. Cartoons love doing it too. Ever seen Space Jam? The Lion King? Or, my favorite – Robin Hood Men in Tights?
You can use this in literature too, if you want. It can definitely lead to some fun explorations in the creative writing craft. Go try it out! If you’ve ever dared to read Don Quixote (the Spanish version is better) you’ll get a shower of it.
So the story goes that a younger Charles Dickens is sitting inside staring at this word moor eeffoc and wondering what magical language it was in and what it mean and how you said it – until, he realized he was just looking at the words Coffee Room from the wrong side of a glass door.
I’ll leave it to what you’ll find if you were to Google which is allegedly coined by Tolkien or G.K. Chesterton, depending on who you want to believe, about this story & eventual literary device.
“The queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.”
Want to try on a challenge or new trick? Just sit back and stare at the word Moor Eeffoc for a bit and see what happens. Want examples? Take a look at Dickens & Tolkien.
This one’s for you, Phil! For a bit more clarification, let’s look at moor eeffoc like this: something that was so ordinary and everyday that out of nowhere has a new meaning or value. So, maybe you’ve been married forever and the laundry your spouse does is just laundry. It’s a run-of-the-mill part of a well-oiled marriage machine. But then, for whatever reason your creative mind wants to foster here, you divorce. Having gone your separate ways, suddenly you realize…
Holy shit, I don’t even know how to do laundry!
That’s a moor eeffoc. You never really thought to look at laundry as anything but ordinary until you are forced to and suddenly it has this new life and meaning to you. It’s a great device to really flush out a world or character.
Some examples in literature would be 85% of Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland books. You’re looking at flowers, caterpillars, roses, cards, flamingos, cats, cake, beverages, tea parties, and the entire world – that you normally wouldn’t have given a second thought to – from a fresh, undiscovered angle. Or James and the Giant Peach where, after reading/watching it, never will you look at bugs or peaches the same way again.
There are more, but I’ll spare you… For now
Maybe next time (or next writing learning opportunity) you’ll stop scribbling for a moment and pay a bit more attention to what’s going on. Who knows, you might just find the device for telling the next great story of our generation (or the next).
charles dickensclasscraftdisneyfilmharry potterhistoryhitchcockindie authorliterary devicenovelscreenplaysignsstudentstudywriterwriting
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