Did the title get you? Yes, this blog post is about the infamous head-in-a-bag plot device. But first, a foray into literary theory. (Sorry, I have to find some kind of use for those college classes. But I promise it will be brief and fun—which is not a use of irony.)
Anyway, lit crit folks have an idea that only a handful of stories exist and most stories, no matter how dissimilar, can be boiled down to one of these “genres.” Allow me to oversimplify with a couple of examples. Greeks thought stories were either comedies (ends in a wedding) or tragedy (ends in a death). Hence Shakespeare’s works are divided into Comedy and Tragedy (and, of course, “histories,” but if Richard the Third isn’t a tragedy, what is?) Detective/murder mysteries are viewed as modern versions of the quest epic.
So if all stories fit into just a couple of categories, how do we keep it interesting? That is in the telling. (Enter head-in-a-bag plot device.) Jasper Fforde writes the Thursday Next “mysteries.” Thursday is a literary detective/fixer. (According to Thursday, she actually “repaired” Jane Eyre. In the “original” version, Jane and Mr. Rochester never got together. Thursday almost lost her job over that fix.) Anyway in Mr. Fforde’s world, characters often try to improve their novels by buying plot devices. One character, who is afraid that his novel may be shredded, goes to the plot device store to buy a plot device. The-head-in-bag device is on sale because, you know, it’s been so overdone, so there’s not a lot of demand. A couple of months ago, I saw an episode of Castle. Guess what? It had the head-in-bag. But the writers made it fresh. (It was a mediocre episode, but still it was the head-in-a-bag. And my kids yelled, “No way, the head-in-bag plot device!”) In the episode, the dead man had his head stolen and stuffed in “cryogenic head container.” The “bad guy” claimed it was for cryogenic purposes. But the truth was that the brain contained evidence of experimental cancer drugs ineffectiveness—which is a totally overdone plot device—the writers need to go back to the plot device store.
All that to say, even if there aren’t any new stories, all you need to do is find a fresh way of writing it—and avoid the head-in-bag plot device. After all, you can only toss the bag through the air and say “Heads up” once or twice before is gets lame.