A Writer’s Wake: 10 Dead Plot Devices


On Saturday night I was at an Eastover dinner party in Brooklyn.
(Translation: an Easter/Passover celebration with both lamb and matzo ball soup on the table, a chocolate bunny on the counter and the door left ajar for Elijah to enter.)

At a certain point, another guest buzzed the intercom and I let her in. After a while, I realized I hadn’t turned off the “speak” button, so any passersby outside headed to their own Eastover celebration could hear my wine-fueled bullshit conversation. As a writer, it occurred to me that this would make an excellent plot device. Through the use of this open speaker, you could write…

1. A romantic comedy reveal: “I guess I’ve always known that I love her. I just couldn’t admit it until now. But now I’m ready to tell the world: I LOVE Stephanie Waterstone! Yeah! I’m crazy about Stephanie Waterstone!”

2. Political intrigue: “What are you saying? That Senator Waterstone knew about the Omega-Lystock assassination attempt? You mean this is a cover-up?”

3. A wacky misunderstanding on Three’s Company: “You said Jack put his bun in Stephanie’s oven!”

Then I started to think about extinct plot devices. Changing times and technology have forced us writers to bid farewell to these tried and true clues, building blocks and story development tools…

1. The matchbook from that no-tell motel, fancy nightclub/restaurant or astrologer’s den. (With fewer smokers in the world, businesses don’t offer them as much and even if they do, people rarely take them.)

2. Pinpointing the time a suspect returned home by the “evening edition” of the newspaper. (People scarcely get one paper anymore, let alone two.)

3. Ditto with the “evening postal delivery”. (Now there’s only one time a day when you can get your Crate and Barrel catalogue.)

4. The answering machine revealing an important/embarrassing bit of info to a roomful of people. (Thanks voicemail!)

5. This one is from Agatha Christie’s “Evil Under The Sun”, in which Hercule Poirot determined the time of the murder because a suspect took a BATH in the AFTERNOON! And no one would admit to said bath. After all, why would ANYONE take a BATH in the afternoon? No one went to the gym or worked an overnight shift back then. So the only reason you’d take a bath in the afternoon is because…you’d just murdered someone.

6. Clark Kent would have a tough time finding phone booths these days.

7. The Important, Top Secret Computer Disc. It didn’t even matter what was on The Important, Top Secret Computer Disc. All you had to know was that everyone wanted it, and it had to be protected at all costs.

8. The broken clock as a red herring in establishing the time of death: The intrepid detective is the only person who realizes that the victim didn’t actually die at 2pm! The murderer just set the clock to 2pm and smashed it! Please. Today’s CSI crew would never fall for that one in the first place.

9. Scary, mysterious “Who’s calling? Who’s there? Just who the hell is this?” plot points created pre-caller I.D. are dead. Also: Romeo and Juliet doesn’t work in the age of cell phones. Today’s teenaged Juliet would constantly text Romeo with her crazy, attention-hungry fake suicide plans well in advance.

10. The typewritten ransom note. It’s always traced back to the culprit because their vintage typewriter drops the letter “t” in all of their correspondence. (Although I guess this one could still work if you were writing a Hipster mystery series: “Terror at the Park Slope Organic Food Co-Op”)

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2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Wake: 10 Dead Plot Devices

  1. Yes, all of those plot conventions need to die and writers also have to realize that isolating a character from the world in an age of smart phones doesn’t work well either.

    The one thing that irks me is that TV sitcoms continue to use the “answering machine” device. Nobody under the age of 70 has an answering machine that plays messages out loud in the living room! Nobody! So if my grandmother is not in your story… stop it!

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