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Phlebotinum is a device that is used to advance a plot, classically in the television industry, although it can also appear in books and films. By its nature, it is usually inexplicable and often magical, with no basis in reality. It exists solely to propel the plot forward without unnecessary fuss, ideally with a minimum of suspension of disbelief. As one might imagine, phlebotinum is especially common in science fiction and fantasy, where unusual plot devices can be more believable.
The term was coined by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer writing team, when the writers were working on an episode and having trouble getting it to advance. As they struggled, one of the writers shouted “don't touch the phlebotinum in the corner,” and the term was born. The Buffy series is somewhat famous for such devices, with a variety of mystical objects and events being used to propel the arc of the story.
One of the most famous examples is probably kryptonite, the mysterious substance which is harmful to Superman. Phlebotinum often pops up when writers need a way to push a story, and they want to avoid a complex circumlocution that may require several episodes to unfold. By throwing phlebotinum into the mix, they can advance the story rather than focusing on the details, keeping readers interested and giving their characters something new to work with and play against.
Because phlebotinum is often impossible to explain, it tends to look out of place in shows that are based on reality or factual events, because viewers expect to see clear, rational explanations for what they see on screen. However, sometimes real-world objects or concepts can fulfill this role; forensics shows, for example, use a number of neat tricks to solve crimes and advance their plots, creating a veneer of scientific respectability for their phlebotinum.
Integrating phlebotinum into a plot can be tricky. Writers generally don't want to make the use of a plot device overly obvious, as it detracts from the story, so they try to introduce these devices with care, creating a situation in which its inclusion is at least reasonably acceptable. Its excessive use is also ill-advised, as fans can start to get impatient with the constant use of plot devices to solve (or create) problems.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is phlebotinum in the context of storytelling?
Phlebotinum is a term coined within the realm of fiction, referring to any substance, technology, or power that drives the plot forward by enabling extraordinary events and abilities. It's often a convenient device used by writers to explain the unexplainable within a narrative, such as superpowers, advanced technology, or magical elements. Phlebotinum is crucial for creating a sense of wonder and facilitating storylines that would otherwise be impossible in a real-world setting.
How does phlebotinum affect the consistency of a fictional world?
Phlebotinum can significantly impact the internal consistency of a fictional world. When used carefully, it establishes the rules and limitations of the universe, providing a framework for the story to unfold. However, if phlebotinum is applied inconsistently or as a deus ex machina, it can undermine the story's believability and leave the audience feeling unsatisfied. Maintaining consistent rules for phlebotinum usage is key to preserving the narrative's integrity.
Can phlebotinum be found in all genres of fiction?
While phlebotinum is most commonly associated with science fiction and fantasy genres, where the extraordinary is expected, it can be found across various types of fiction. Any genre that incorporates elements beyond the realm of the current possible, such as speculative fiction, supernatural thrillers, or even certain romantic comedies with magical or futuristic twists, may include some form of phlebotinum to facilitate the plot.
Is there a risk of overusing phlebotinum in storytelling?
Yes, there is a risk of overusing phlebotinum in storytelling. When relied upon excessively, it can lead to lazy writing, where problems are too easily resolved with a convenient plot device, diminishing the story's tension and character development. Overuse can also alienate the audience if the narrative becomes too reliant on inexplicable elements, making it difficult for them to suspend disbelief and stay engaged with the story.
How do writers justify the existence of phlebotinum in their stories?
Writers justify the existence of phlebotinum in their stories by integrating it into the world-building process. They provide a plausible explanation within the story's context, whether through scientific, mystical, or other means. By establishing a set of rules for how phlebotinum works and its limitations, writers can make its presence feel more natural and necessary for the plot, rather than a contrived addition.