The Art of Plotting, Part III – The Techniques


Back I am, off my desert sabbatical.  Mrs. Axe and I spent some time in Vegas and had a very good time – we saw some shows, did a little gambling, hung out with friends, ate too much….  It was good times.  Now I am a geographic bachelor again.  Bah.  Well, I may as well do something useful.

I talked a bit about characters and about the story.  Now I’d like to cover some of the literary devices one can use in constructing their story.  Like everything else I say, none of this is the holy word, so feel free to pick it apart.  (Parts One and Two, respectively.)

So, what are literary techniques?  Simply put, these are techniques that allow the author to advance the story.  Duh.  There are literally dozens of these but here are some of my favorites:

Chekhov’s Gun – Or How I stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Foreshadowing.  Let’s say an author opens a story by describing a farmer’s hut as the occupant enters.  The author goes into great detail on the farmer’s trusty shovel and then doesn’t mention it again.  The reader is left nonplussed until ten pages later when the monster breaks into the hut – only to be decapitated by a swing of the trusty shovel, right where the character (and author) left it.  That’s Chekhov’s Gun – a seemingly random detail that later assumes critical importance later in the story.  It’s a sub-setting of foreshadowing, as it usually involves something concrete: an object, a word that turns out to be a secret password, or something of that ilk.

Red Herring – AKA The Magician’s Assistant.  I call this the magician’s assistant because a red herring is akin to a showgirl in a skimpy outfit who keeps the audience’s eyes on her while the magician swaps hats for the one with the rabbit.  It’s intended to distract the reader or redirect their attention to an unimportant character or a false trail.  In the Mistborn Trilogy, (highlight for spoiler), Vin is made out for 2 7/8 books to be the Hero of the Ages.  She’s not but another character is.  Another example:  in the movie, Saw, the depicted characters spend a great deal of time blaming each other for the murders but it’s not them.  Most people never guessed the right answer until the Big Reveal, even though the evidence was literally under their collective noses.  This is different from what M. Night Shyamalan does; that’s a twist ending and that’s generally subtle as a brick in the noggin and subject to awful plot holes (and he’s still made more money than any of us … sad).

Unreliable Narrator … ’cause, who can you trust?  You begin to read a story.  After a few chapters, you frown.  The events, as described by the narrator, seem to contain a terrible bias.  You frown again – then start reading.  The underlying truth of the events is slowly revealed, telling you more about the character than ten pages of exposition ever could.  The ultimate example is probably that bastard Humbert Humbert from Lolita.  The author really has to filter the events of the story through the prejudices and predispositions of the narrator – and thus, steer the story to meet their expectations.  Unreasonable actions may become reasonable – or may exist just because the narrator is skewed in perception.  Unreliable narrators are tricky but pulling it off is a great plot device.

The Fourth Wall – and when to smash It.  An old reference to Greek drama/comedy, the fourth wall is the invisible partition between the reader and the characters in the book.  Acknowledgment by the characters that they are just that – characters in a story – is usually a device employed in light or comedic tales but also plays well in some forms of horror.  In Marvel comics, the anti-hero Deadpool constantly talks to the reader; the other characters ask him who he’s talking to and write it off as part of his insanity.  (I believe the Joker has done similar things.)  I personally prefer the light touch, that hints rather than explicitly says it; in one story I wrote, a character laid out a complicated scheme required for them to succeed.  The second character asks what loser came up with that concept and the first responds, "I don’t know; losers with too much time on their hands, I guess."  That meant me, of course.

(Muse:  They knew that.  You and loser go together like Julia Roberts and big mouths.  I swear when that woman smiles, it looks like a shark.)

Oooookay.  Thanks to the muse, now my motivation is gone.

Anyway, there are a lot of literary devices and techniques out there; this has barely nicked the surface.  There are a lot of resources out there, including a quick summary here at SparkNotes, another at, and some more at UNC-Pembroke.

I’ll wrap this up next time and try to tie it all together.


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