Extinguishing External Plot Devices

I am re-posting this oldie but goodie from my 2011 blog tour because I think it’s worth a read!

How many times have you read a romance book where the hero and heroine have a fight? The hero storms out. The heroine packs her things and moves out. This is it. The breakup to end all breakups. Then the heroine gets the call: “There’s been an accident!” She rushes to the hospital. Her vision clouded by tears, she maneuvers around the crowded Emergency Room in a desperate search to find someone who can help her, someone who can tell her if the hero is alive, or heaven forbid, *dramatic sob*….dead. And at the thought of losing him she is suddenly slapped by the realization she loves him, would be lost without him, and has no desire to go on living if she can’t do it with him by her side.

 As a reader I think: WHAT? Three pages earlier she’d thrown a cleaver at his head, told him he was scum and she could never forgive him for cheating on her with those slutty triplets he’d met at the bar. Sure, he’d apologized profusely. But she’d been adamant. She could not get past—and would never, ever forget—the images from the videoed play-by-play that’d gone viral on the Internet. He was depraved. She was humiliated. They were done. 

 But then, with the possibility of him being dead or gravely injured comes her declaration of unconditional love? I’m not buyin’ it! Because if it were me, I’d be thinking: ‘Take that you lying, cheating, scumbag. You got what you deserved.’ But then readers wouldn’t have the expected happily ever after ending, would they?

 External plot devices are things we authors throw at our characters to create conflict or make them do something so the story moves along the way we want it to. In the first draft of When One Night Isn’t Enough, my very first Harlequin Mills and Boon medical romance, I had a secret baby, a threatened miscarriage, a car accident, and the hero’s estranged wife, who he’d never bothered to divorce, showing up in the E.R. on the day the heroine had decided to tell the hero about her pregnancy. Oh, did I mention the estranged wife was also pregnant? 

 Oh the drama!

 Upon reading my complete manuscript (after signing me based on my first three chapters (thank goodness)) my then agent said, “Wow. You’ve got a lot of external plot devices here. I seriously suggest you get rid of some.”

 Newbie that I was, I thought: External what? And did a Google search.

 Then my brand new editor who’d agreed to take me on (because she’d loved my voice (again, thank goodness)) in an attempt to see if I could revise my manuscript into a saleable novel said, “The hero and heroine cannot get together simply because she’s pregnant. And while the pregnant estranged wife showing up is dramatic, I don’t think you need it.” Then she went on to talk about internal motivation, character driven plot, and character growth.

 Okay. Back to the storyboard. 

 What I learned from revising my manuscript (actually rewriting it – twice) is that by eliminating external plot devices to create conflict and move my story along I really had to dig deep into my characters’ heads to determine who they were, what they wanted, and how they planned to get it. I let them determine their own fates based upon their decisions and actions. By removing the threatened miscarriage as a means of getting the hero close to the heroine, I was forced to show the progression of their relationship. How he grew to care for her before finding out she was carrying his child. And by changing the car accident scene, which originally served to prompt the heroine’s disclosure of her pregnancy to the E.R. doctor treating her – yes, the hero, I was forced to show her thought processes and anxieties leading up to the big reveal. And by deleting the estranged wife showing up at the hospital I kept the focus on the hero and heroine.

 All in all I think the changes made for a much more satisfying read. I hope you agree. If you haven’t already read When One Night Isn’t Enough, you can find out more about it, and my other books, on my BOOKS page.

 So what’s your take on external plot devices?



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  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:13 AM | Permalink

    I loved this article. Still do 🙂 This is my favorite line:
    “Three pages earlier she’d thrown a cleaver at his head, told him he was scum and she could never forgive him for cheating on her with those slutty triplets he’d met at the bar”. It makes me laugh every time 🙂

    Thanks for reposting it!

  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:49 AM | Permalink

    Yes. 🙂

    I wrote an article about “Sexual Motivation” for sexy romance that follows the same logic — everything characters do has to come from them, who they are, even having sex.

    I think you can have the external plot devices (maybe not 10 of them, LOL) but the thing is in how the chars will respond to them, or how those devices play out with these particular personalities, rather than letting the device push the story — if that makes any sense. Some Harlequin lines, like Blaze, want external plot (so we will use a plot device, say, like a citywide blackout) but how your characters react, change and grow within that device is what makes it authentic or interesting.


  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:33 AM | Permalink

    Very useful at this stage of my revisions. Thank you.

  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:00 PM | Permalink

    I’ve always been bothered by these sorts of things in books (unless they happen very organically), but I never knew what they were called. I just had this vague feeling of being cheated as a reader. Thanks for that explanation, Wendy. External plot devices. I’ll remember it!

    And I have already read and can testify that When One Night Isn’t Enough is a great read. If anyone reading this comment hasn’t already read it, do!

  • Wendy S. Marcus
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:23 PM | Permalink

    Thanks Lacey!

  • Wendy S. Marcus
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:24 PM | Permalink

    Hi Sam!

    Exactly! The characters have to drive the story! And a city wide blackout sounds like an excellent backdrop for a Blaze!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Wendy S. Marcus
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:25 PM | Permalink

    Hi Fiona!

    I’m glad you found the post useful. That’s why I posted it again…for people who didn’t catch it the first time around!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Wendy S. Marcus
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:28 PM | Permalink

    Thanks Regina!

    I remember reading a story that was pretty good. Then came the black moment. The hero storms off because he has to go to work as an EMT. The heroine, a doctor if I remember correctly, gets in her little sports car in a storm to head back to the city.

    I remember thinking nooooo…don’t do it. But the author did. The little car slid off the road. The EMT is first on scene. And then all the apologies and declorations of love. It was a lazy ending and I felt cheated.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:23 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for resharing this post. It was great. Educational and entertaining. I think it’s only natural when starting to write to throw one external hurdle after the other at the H/h. At least it was for me. It takes a lot of work and angst to dig deep into these characters to find the skeletons in their closets. 🙂

  • Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:44 AM | Permalink

    Hi Jennifer!

    Let’s face it, every book has external plot devices. But it’s important that we authors don’t get lazy and let them move our story along. It does take a lot of work and angst to dig deep into our characters…but in my opinion, that’s what makes a good reading experience for the reader.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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