Gods, Guns, and Herrings: Narrative devices 101

It’s been a busy month. Christmas, New Year, assignments, exams, and my 21st birthday. This hectic period seems to have been bursting at the seams with stories to be told, seen, hear, read, and shared. Christmas of course is a time for stories of all kinds, while New Year celebrations include those of the past and the future, and similarly with birthdays too. Even exam and essay season has horror stories about dreadful exams, and tales of 5am library stints before early morning deadlines (the proudest moment in my academic career yet). With all this going on I figured I’d write about something comprehensive to the world of narrative. I landed on narrative devices, which as the name suggests are found in all forms of storytelling. The following three features are a couple of most common ones. There are of course many, many more but hopefully you’ll find these few pretty cool.

Bender shut up

Ok. First up, Chekhov’s Gun. Noticing this narrative device often allows you to smugly say ‘Well I saw that coming’ (not overly appreciated by those around you), and originates from Anton Chekhov, a famous Russian playwright and author, who said that everything featured in a story should have a purpose, and so if the first act of a narrative mentions a loaded gun mounted on the wall, then by act III it should, and most likely will, be taken down and fired (see Shaun of the Dead for a very literal demonstration of this). Basically, most of the time if a director/author/etc takes the time to establish something in a narrative then it will likely be important later on. One of the best examples of this is seen in the James Bond series. Before going of on a mission Q will almost always give Bond a selection of gadgets and gizmos, and Bond almost always ends up using these to escape some inescapable situation. Similarly, in Harry Potter, if Harry is shown learning or reading about a certain spell then it’s probably going to be used later on. In fact, there are countless examples of this in Harry Potter. Huh, a lesson on werewolves? I’m sure that’s not at all important…

"Well I definitely should have listened more in class."

“Well hell, I definitely should have listened more in class.”

In contrast to Chekhov’s gun there is the Red Herring narrative technique. A red herring is something introduced into a story to purposefully mislead the audience. Leading the audience to think they know what’s coming allows for twists and surprises to pull the rug from under them (in a good way) further down the line. Again there are examples of this in the Harry Potter books and films, as pretty much every year Snape is shown sneaking around supposedly being evil and behind all the dastardly plots, when really it turns out to be someone else. Most of the time. Actually, thinking about it, all the defence against the dark arts teachers turn out to be the ones up to no good or hiding the big secret. Man, if Harry caught on to that sooner he could have saved himself a whole lot of time and effort. Annnyway, I digress.

Red herrings are incredibly common in anything like mystery novels or ‘who done it?’ TV shows, as the storytellers know their audience will be actively looking for clues to solve the mystery and guess the inevitable twists and turns to come. Although, many people also know that the storytellers are intentionally trying to throw them off the scent. Yet, storytellers also know that their recipients know this. And so, as is often the case with thrillers and mystery stories, both sides end up competing to try and outfox one another, the teller wanting to tell a smart and surprising story, and the recipient wishing to have the satisfaction of predicting the outcome.

Friends they know

If the use of Chekhov’s gun allows events in a narrative to seem more acceptable and less like pure chance by preparing us early on for things that are going to come up, then a Dues ex Machina is what happens when things aren’t set up before hand. A term originating from Ancient Greek comedy and tragedy plays, deus ex machina translates to god of the machines and refers to when a god or goddess was lowered onto the stage in the nick of time to completely resolve the storyline of the play. So these days people use it to describe when something completely unexpected occurs at the climax of a seemingly hopeless situation and resolves it. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, wherein all of humanity is being helplessly desolated by giant martian war robot things, only for all the martians to suddenly up and die because of Earth’s bacteria. Yep, they are basically defeated by the common cold. What a victory for humanity, I know.

One often argued example is the eagles conveniently rocking up and saving Sam and Frodo from a lava-ie (?) death at the end of Lord of the Rings. They are depicted saving Gandalf earlier in the trilogy so it’s not a flat out deus ex machina, but it is pretty damn convenient and not at all explained. And, for the sake of continuity, there are also plenty of examples of this in… you guessed it… Harry Potter. My personal favourite of these is at the end of The Goblet of Fire where Harry is saved from certain death by the ghosts of his death family and friends appearing out of nowhere and creating a barrier of love… or something? The sword hidden in a hat brought into the secret underground lair by a bird in The Chamber of Secrets was a close second (For the record I love Harry Potter, but it is pretty funny when you think about it).

Death of Hippolytus

A sculpting of Hippolytus, a teenager who loves riding around town in his chariot, the main character in an Ancient Greek play, and overall dick. At the end of the play he is punished for all his misdoings by Poseidon summoning a monster out of the sea and causing him to crash his chariot and die. Thus resolving the story. I hear Fast and Furious 9 is pretty a beat for beat remake of this story… (I kid. God, I hope I kid)

So, there are three common literary devices. Be warned, now you know about these you will constantly be spotting them. And loudly pointing them out to people in the middle of watching a film or TV show is generally not appreciated (trust me). Hopefully you found them at least partially interesting, if so I may write a blog about some more in the future. Comment below or catch me on twitter @GregRogers95 if you have a favourite example of any of these literary devices or just want to talk stories.

Also, hope everyone had a great Christmas and is enjoying the New Year,

G.T. Rogres.


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