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What is Phlebotinum?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments
By anon329115 — On Apr 08, 2013

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.

By MissDaphne — On Jun 29, 2011

@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.

By Kat919 — On Jun 29, 2011

@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?

By anon137025 — On Dec 25, 2010

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

By anon109900 — On Sep 09, 2010

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

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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