plot devices screenplay

Screenplay ideas are useless if not executed well most writers overlook plot devices. As an aspiring screenwriter, you need to write your stories in an exciting way that will capture your audience’s attention. One of the most important aspects of a screenplay is plot. You might be still figuring out how to sell your screenplay, its story and concept, so let me tell you something that can help: plot devices! These are storytelling techniques that drive the plot, keep it flowing, and improve the audience’s overall experience.


Of course, when abused or used badly, plot devices can ruin your script instead of improving it. That’s why the best screenwriting workshops train script writers on how to master the use of plot devices so that they help rather than harm the script. So when you’re considering plot devices, be careful with how you use them. Now instead of resorting to screenplay consulting services, feel free to check the follow list: we’ve gathered for you ten great plot devices you can use to tell your story.

1.     MacGuffins

The MacGuffin is one of cinema’s oldest and most commonly used plot devices. A MacGuffin is an object that characters seek throughout the film, but which doesn’t have value on its own. It simply helps advance the plot, triggering characters to act. Famous MacGuffins in cinema include Rosebud in Citizen Kane and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

There’s been a lot of controversy about the MacGuffin as a cliché trope that has saturated movies. In fact, some of the best screenwriting workshops warn writers about this plot device. If not written well, a MacGuffin can expose you as a lazy script writer who relies on these objects to carry the whole plot instead of creating a real story. So be careful if you use this one, it’s not a simple trick.

2.     Cliffhangers

Cliffhangers probably originated in TV shows because they rely on the audience’s anticipation of the upcoming episode. However, nowadays with franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe and the often produced sequels, they can also be used in movies to build suspense and leave the audience looking forward to the next installment.

Cliffhangers are endings that literally leave the audience “hanging” without knowing the story’s resolution. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, the audience watches Lord Voldemort break into Dumbledore’s grave and finally obtain the Elder Wand…then the credits roll. We don’t know if Voldemort wins or not, we simply know that he now possesses a powerful weapon (or should we say a MacGuffin?) that can be very dangerous. So we sit and wait for the following movie, wondering what will happen to Harry Potter and his friends when they face their enemy.

3.     Flashbacks

flash back screenplay

Flashbacks in screenplays are practical and economical ways to provide important information. They can tell us events that happened long ago, thus contextualizing the present day, or they can update the audience with critical pieces of information that change their perception of what’s happening.

Some screenplay consulting services may advise you to avoid this plot device if you’re not confident about your writing, but it really depends on how you use the flashback in screenplays. In Titanic, for example, the flashback composes the majority of the film as Rose tells her story in hindsight. But in The Bourne Identity, flashbacks are used to inform the audience about Jason’s past and increase the suspense regarding his present.

4.     Big Dumb Objects

monolith plot device space odyssey

Sounds like a bad idea, right? They’re not. The Big Dumb Object (BDO) is basically a strange and powerful object that creates a lot of mystery in any film. It keeps the audience wondering why that object is so special and how it exists. BDOs are most frequently used in sci-fi movies. The iconic example of a BDO is the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

5.     Plot Vouchers

Plot vouchers are objects that come in handy. Your character obtains an object, initially innocuous with no particular purpose, but later that very same object helps your character beat a major obstacle. For example, the protagonist may receive a metal pin from a friend during act one which saves his life in the end when it prevents a flying bullet from piercing his chest.

6.     False Death

screenplay ideas false death

You’ve seen this a lot, whether it’s the satisfying return of James Gordon in The Dark Knight or the predictable reveal of David’s victory in Alien: Covenant. False deaths, if done well, can be an excellent plot device to shock and please the audience. You just need to make sure that it’s not too unrealistic or unlikely so that the audience doesn’t scoff at the reveal.

7.     Red Herrings

Red herrings are used to distract the audience, steering them away from something important happening in the movie. The classic use of red herrings is found in thrillers and mysteries where the writer initially frames one character as the murderer only to later reveal they had alibi, for example. The use of several red herrings in a single film will entertain the audience and keep them guessing.

8.     Setups and Payoffs

This plot device is often used because it results in satisfying moments. The screenwriter sets up a certain moment by briefly dropping hints about an object or character throughout the film then later writes a payoff where they reveal to the audience the reason why these images were mentioned earlier. For example, in Finding Nemo, when Marlin is taking Nemo to his first day of school, they talk about sea turtles and sharks. Much later in the film, Marlin actually meets sea turtles and sharks during his journey.


9.     Ticking Time Bombs

screenwriting time bomb plot

Ticking time bombs amplify the tension in any story, propelling it forward. Examples include deadlines set by mafia members for people to deliver money or a killer’s vow to kill again unless the police catch him. Time bombs are a marketable plot device if you’re wondering how to sell your screenplay so make good use of them.

10. False Endings

False endings trick the audience into believing that the story’s resolved but then surprise them with a completely different ending for a more satisfying response. It’s used in many genres in long and short screenplays but is most prominent in thrillers. A great example that always comes to mind is Primal Fear. Just when the audience celebrates Martin Vail’s victory to declare Aaron innocent, the movie is turned on its head and we get a different ending: Aaron has always been Roy, the murderer all along.

Whichever plot device you choose, make sure you’re incorporating it into your story properly. It’s a shame to waste your screenplay ideas on poorly executed tropes so make them count!


Adam Parham
Adam P.
Lead Writer at | + posts