Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tuesday Tropes: The Plot Coupon

Many games do it. Most globe-trotting adventures do it. Even cat-sitting MIB stories do it. Objects become a matter of objective in storytelling. Be it a handful of pearls to break out of hell or a galaxy on a cat's collar, you won't have an ending without these little savers.

The Plot Coupon - An item (or a series of items) that are required to resolve a plot. These are often picked up and used later, when their importance is realized. This is not to be mistaken as a MacGuffin, an item that is used to drive a plot, but isn't used to resolve anything.

The Plot Coupon can take on a range of objects, people, or electronics. We never really got to see the Death Star plans, but the rebels never would have been able to launch their massive attack without them.

What if The Plot Coupon is more than just random objects, and more than people, but trapped souls? The only way one little girl escaped another dimension was by collecting and releasing the souls of three children. It's nice having a talking cat help you out (if you find one, let me know).

And, on rare occasions, a Plot Coupon is a for-real coupon! Better cash it for a lifetime of chocolate!

 Don't let the dog eat it!

If you're not familiar with the novel or BBC mini- series Little Dorrit, it's worth your while. There's a box in it that contains special documents, which obviously holds the answer to everyone's problem. Can I say it? You gotta love Dickens!

The possibilities are endless, but The Plot Coupons that are most valuable are the ones that characters aren't aware they need in order to solve their problem. As was the "case" in the first MIB film (first picture). Just like those pesky ads that fill your mailbox each week, we'll keep finding (and writing) these coupons in our stories.

Have you used The Plot Coupon in your writing? Did they know what it was, or was it a complete surprise?

I'm David, and where's that flute music coming from?


  1. At some point or another everyone uses a plot coupon. I wonder if I can take it to the grocery story and get it doubled?

  2. I had planned on using it in a story I never finished (got to get around to completing all those drafts sometime). The characters didn't know what the objects were at first, though they found out later.

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  3. Yep, using it now for my current project! They know they need it but not what it does... yet.

  4. Yes, I have it in my WIP, but I love adding a little twist at the end.

    Plot coupons are great because it's something concrete and usually transcends the original intention of finding it.

    Would you consider Stephen King's The Body (Stand By Me)to have used this trope? The body is the goal - but when they finally reach that goal, their original motivation quickly transforms once they see the dead kid.

  5. I think there are a lot of plot coupon stories running about--a book with secrets, a trail of letter, etc. I think it's all fun!

  6. I never knew this had a name until now. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Yay! I've used this one. Mine was a glass key. Unfortunately it got broken but hey, the good guys won because of that key.

  8. I'm not sure if I have a plot coupon in my new WIP (it's still under 10,000 words at this point), but I know I've used 'em in the past.

    btw, I just saw your list of "My Favorite Stars" over there --->, and Shannon Hale is in your top 5. OMG. I love her! *writer envy*

  9. We have the same taste in movies! I loved Little Dorritt and Coraline :) Plot coupons figure heavily in my next WIP, although I think most characters know how important they are from the very start!

  10. Interesting post today. The anthology I'm putting together falls right in line with thise plot device. I snuck a peek at some of your writing - I like your voice. You might want to check out the submission guidelines for the anthology I'm putting together.

  11. This plot coupon sounds like part of the 6th point in David Wells 7 point writing system, when they find whatever they need to solve the problem (or realize what it is). Kevin Hiatt sent me the link after I asked him for help choosing my book hook. I could use your opinion too. I'll submit to inkPageant and if you didn't attend that BYU seminar, you'll see the link in Kevin's comment. To me, it was like attending a writer's conference seminar for free! Now I'm going to add a note that point 6 = a plot coupon. Thanks!

  12. Hmm, I didn't know any of this - consciously. I'll have to be more observant in my own writing. This is fascinating, Thanks David.


  13. I... don't know how often I've used this one. I think the plot item in my book is a macguffin.

    And I'm on the wisdom third of the Triforce. I'm a scaredy-cat and I definitely don't have much power, aside from knowledge. :)