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What is Phlebotinum?

Phlebotinum is the versatile substance in fiction that powers the impossible, from warp drives to magic spells. It's the mysterious catalyst behind many plot devices, sparking endless curiosity and debate. Its very nature defies explanation, inviting viewers to suspend disbelief and embrace the wonders of the story. What might phlebotinum unlock in your favorite tales? Dive deeper to explore its pivotal role.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


A MacGuffin is also something that is needed to advance the plot. It can be something like the briefcase with the launch codes, the magic ring of truth needed to open the door of destiny, the hair clip so the rogue can pick the lock. It's an actual object or something that needs to be gained in order to bypass an obstacle. The quest to get the MacGuffin is what (part of) the plot revolves around.

Phlebotinum is more like something that is always there, or "just is". Star Wars has the force because of midichlorians, Spiderman can shoot webs from his wrists because of the radioactive spider bite, Unobtainium was used in Avatar to explain how they could travel to another planet. Star Trek has warp drives for faster than light travel. It's the thing that explains why otherwise impossible things are possible.

Or Superman's powers are Phlebotinum, so is kryptonite, but kryptonite could be used as a MacGuffin too, like if it was needed to get a blood sample from Superman to save his life. The quest to get it makes it a MacGuffin in that case.


@Kat919 - My understanding is that a MacGuffin is something that characters really, really want (sometimes called "unobtanium" or "eludium") like the philosopher's stone. Their efforts to obtain it drive the plot forward.

It sounds like a phlebotinum is a little more general term. After all, Superman wasn't seeking kryptonite, but it still drove the plot.

What I'm wondering is why it has the root word for blood in it! When I saw the title of the article, I thought phlebotinum had something to do with blood.


@anon137025 - Yeah, I noticed the same thing on TNG -- the deflector array can do anything!

How is a phlebotinum different from a macguffin? Is it just a trendy, Buffy-era term for an idea that had been around a long time, or are they actually different things?


Yes, let's just tune that deflector array a little.


Regarding the excessive use of phlebotinum: See just about any episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

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