Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Plot Devices

Stock mechanisms used in fiction to initiate, complicate, advance, retard or terminate the plot. Some are common to all genres; the following selection naturally favours PDs prevalent in fantasy, cross-referring as appropriate to those having their own entries.

Amnesia Inflicting Amnesia on a protagonist may be convenient as a pretext for exposition, as a way of making a sympathetic character into an Obsessed Seeker, or as a means of distancing a less sympathetic past. Wolff/Jadawin in Philip José Farmer's The Maker of Universes (1965) and Corwin in Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1970) are clearly gentler for their memory loss; but the protagonist of Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave (1975) is rendered more dangerous, lacking knowledge of and control over the powers that go with her lost identity. A related "tidying-up" PD, common in Children's Fantasy, is the concluding Memory Wipe.

Butchery The excessive violence of Dark Lords is often crucial in motivating Heroes and Heroines against them. Often, the initiating violence is perpetrated against the protagonist's parents, as in Geoff Ryman's The Warrior who Carried Life (1985) and Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (1994). The atrocity is not always murder – in Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer (1963) Elric's wife suffers Transformation into a Monster.

Clues In Detective/Thriller Fantasy, clues have the same function as in the nonfantasy genres; readers can match their wits with the author, protagonist and unknown villain. In Barbara Hambly's The Witches of Wenshar (1987) the identity and motivation of the magical murderer can be deduced from probabilities. More generally, clues can dramatically foreshadow or prepare the ground for later revelation or Recognition. In Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983) Doyle deduces from hearing someone whistling The Beatles' "Yesterday" in Regency London that he is not alone in his Time Travel: this is both clue and Pistol Effect (q.v.).

Cook's Tour The traditional journey around the Map of a Fantasyland, visiting every point of interest and perhaps collecting Plot Coupons; also, a device whereby an Obsessed Seeker or Accursed Wanderer is moved from location to location in a Template series. In lands of Allegory (>>> Imaginary Lands) the tour reflects progress through intellectual or spiritual states.

Duel A frequent assumption is that right will prevail in a straightforward contest between two strong men. Accordingly, many fantasies climax in physical or magical single combat. At the end of Martha Wells's The Element of Fire (1993) her battle-weary protagonist allows his enemy, the king's favourite, to assume him more weakened than he is and challenge him; righteousness overrules honesty on such occasions. The protagonist of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint (1987) is unusual in being a professional duellist. Duels between wizards are rarely physical, and take the form of competitive Metamorphoses as in the movie The Sword in the Stone (1963; > Disney; T H White) – the duel between Dream and the Demon Choronzon in Neil Gaiman's Preludes & Nocturnes (graph coll 1991) elegantly varies this traditional theme – or as struggles between Spells embodied as physical forces or objects, like the spfx duel in Roger Corman's The Raven (1963); or an alternating sequence of oddly named charms, one set of which eventually overwhelms the other: Jack Vance's wizards incline to such duels, as does Marvel Comics's Doctor Strange.

Escape J R R Tolkien argued that escape from prison is a prime image of fantasy, and that to object to its Escapism is to reveal a secret tyrannous agenda. Certainly LOTR is full of escapes and rescues: they are small fixes of victory. Gandalf's escape from the Underworld and the Balrog effectively involves his death and Resurrection – for a Christian like Tolkien, all escapes are types of Christ's Resurrection, and all rescues reflect Christ's redemption of humankind.

Forgetting The decision to destroy an item of knowledge on behalf of humanity is a standard ending in much Supernatural Fiction, Horror and Dark Fantasy. In Karel Čapek's The Makropoulos Case (1922) Emilia Marty decides that 300 years of life is enough and gives the Immortality-drug recipe to the girl Krista, who decides to burn it. Outside pure fantasy, forgetting still tends to mean the destruction of unique manuscripts and Books – e.g., in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). This is a device whereby quite mundane fictions can ally themselves to Fantasies of History.

Impersonation A traditional device in Ruritania, where Doubles of royal-family members are strangely easy to find. Magic impersonation can be sinisterly used, as when the evil fox in Susan Cooper's The Grey King (1975) takes on the forms of dogs.

Inns > Inns.

Jealousy Emotions are powerful generators of plot, and those concerned with a sense of identity are perhaps peculiarly crucial to fantasy, in which identity (> Hidden Monarchs; Identity Exchange; True Names; Soul) is always important. Villains become so because envious of what they are not: Barbara Hambly's Altiokis, in The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984), resents wizardly apprenticeship and finds his own way to magical power; the heir to the throne, Elias, in Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (1988-1993), envies his brother Joshua's prowess and glamour and sets out to destroy him, thus wounding the Land. Jealousy and envy are powerfully destructive temptations – Boromir in LOTR resents the likely replacement of his line of stewards by the Hidden Monarch Aragorn, and attempts to steal the Ring. All these characters implicitly fall short by seeking that to which they are not innately entitled, whereas Ugly Ducklings effortlessly get that which is rightfully theirs.

Lies and Deceits A lie is both a highly metaphysical element in fantasy (since the nature of Reality is always a concern) and one of its most simplistic generators of Story; by definition it is a self-serving Parody of the purity of Story. Lies are expected from Satan, Loki, Dark Lords and Tricksters. Virtuous tricksters often lie by economy with the truth: in Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark (1979) Ambrosius does not so much deceive the protagonist as fail to explain things to him in enough detail.

Loopholes Fantasy tends to have sharply defined rules, with oaths, Conditions, Contracts, Prohibitions, Prophecies, vows, Wishes, etc., possessing (through Magic) greater force than physical law. Loopholes are thus constantly sought. (>>> Answered Prayers; Quibbles; Read the Small Print.)

Mutilation Partly because Odin gave up an eye for wisdom, fantasy protagonists are prone to losing body parts during Night Journeys or otherwise. Frodo loses a finger in LOTR; Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd a hand; Barbara Hambly's Sun Wolf an eye; Tim Powers's protagonists are peculiarly likely to lose bits.

Nazgûl In J R R Tolkien's LOTR the Nazgûl, Sauron's mightiest henchmen, are – considering their powers – remarkably absent from the plot. Nazgûl typify menaces introduced more for ornament than use.

Oracles > Oracles.

Pistol Effect In Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo (1961) the Samurai hero witnesses the arrival of a villain – who produces and fires a six-shooter, revealing that we are not in generic samurai-time, as we had assumed. The Pistol Effect is any such sudden presentation of an object or concept which radically changes our perception of where we are in Time, space or genre. Often it triggers the realization of a Time Abyss. Examples abound – in Michael Moorcock's The Runestaff (1969) the ships of Granbretan have names including distorted versions of those of The Beatles, shockingly indicating that this is our own world's future; the ancient painting (> Pictures and Portraits) in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) proves to depict an astronaut on the Moon; in Barbara Hambly's The Silicon Mage (1989) the heroine's realization that a supposed godling is actually another interloper from elsewhere in the Multiverse is signalled by her use of pi to communicate with what turns out to be an alien; the strangeness of Mary Gentle's City in Rats and Gargoyles (1990) is indicated by the mention of a fifth compass point.

Plot Coupons > McGuffin; Plot Coupons.

Plot Voucher A wild-card PD issued to protagonists of Genre Fantasy, early in their travels, often with an assurance that when the time comes they will realize its use. An inoffensive example is the magic tin whistle acquired by Fafhrd in Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar (1968).

Separation Principals, often part of a Duo or a Seven-Samurai or a Dirty-Dozen group, are scattered to collect Plot Coupons from different locations, or simply to give the reader a Cook's Tour (q.v.) of this particular Fantasyland. Separation is so much a standard PD of large-scale Genre Fantasy that we take it almost for granted.

Temptation Much Genre Fantasy assumes a Christian Universe, where even the best of humans may fall into moral jeopardy – especially at the climax of their prolonged Night Journey, when they risk throwing away everything they have learned and earned. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) is careful to point out a way to Hell even from the gates of Heaven; J R R Tolkien's snobbery is interestingly evident as noble Frodo and gallant Boromir nearly succumb to the Ring's temptation, while Samwise, though momentarily tempted, is in less moral danger because he knows his place. Often the temptation is merely to think wrong thoughts that will make the principal more vulnerable to the forces of evil – literally in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961), when Holger's mildly carnal thought about a female Companion nullifies their magic protective circle and admits a Giant. Under torture, in Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (1988-1993), Simon finds himself wrongly resenting his allies as having used him; such unjust self-pity in a potential Messiah would be a serious moral failing if continued. More interestingly, Covenant's temptations in Stephen R Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977) concern the improper use of power for good motives; Covenant has a personalized tempter rather than merely being self-betrayed. Personal tempters are rife in Slick Fantasy, which relies so much on Faustian Pacts and magic Shops.

Walking In his Inventing the Middle Ages (1992), Norman Cantor remarks that one of the several services J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis did for medieval studies was to dramatize for lay readers the fact that travel on foot, or even on horseback if reasonable care is being taken of a single horse on a long journey, is prolonged, arduous and inconvenient. The walking pace of most fantasy journeys means that people move slowly through Landscapes which often acquire moral meanings in the process; problems must be solved rather than merely moved away from at high speed.

Xenophobia Savage tribes, Lost Races and intractable nonhumans routinely delay the progress of a Cook's Tour (q.v.) through unfounded hostility; conversely, J R R Tolkien's orcs have promoted the xenophobic assumption that those who look unpleasant or merely different must be evil (>>> Colour-Coding) – a notion interestingly challenged by (for example) Tad Williams in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. [RK/DRL]

further reading: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) by Diana Wynne Jones.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.