All stories are contrived. A story is carefully set up so the pieces fall when they’re supposed to. In real life it doesn’t work like that. Murder’s go unsolved. Bank robbers get away. Bankers get even bigger bonuses. But we don’t read stories so we can see the world in its unfathomable weirdness that makes little sense (that’s what we have windows for).
The value ascribed to real life events are not the same when they are used by writers. In real life, winning the lottery is hugely unlikely. In a story it is very easy to arrange. That ability of the writer’s to make things happen any way he wants, can often derail a story if it is too obvious.
Any time you write down a story the reader is aware that there is a guiding hand behind the events, even if it’s only subconsciously. And knowing that is what enables you to keep the mechanics of what you’re doing hidden. Like in a magic trick, it isn’t stopping them seeing, it’s controlling where they look.
There’s a skill to hiding the contrivance that is present in all stories, and it is based on keeping the reader’s attention on the characters and what they’re doing, rather than what’s happening to them.
If the villain has an unusual tattoo, and the hero is talking to him without know he’s the one everyone’s looking for, and the villain snags his shirt on a nail, ripping it and revealing the tattoo, and that’s how the hero realises he’s the bad guy—that could totally be a plausible sequence of events. But it won’t feel satisfying to read. The reveal fell into the hero’s lap out of sheer luck, much like a lottery win.
If, on the other hand, the hero is a practical joker who plays a harmless prank on a co-worker, revealing the tattoo that’s been reported on the news, that is still contrived—the outcome conveniently reveals the information required—but it won’t feel so obvious when reading. As soon as you have one thing caused by another thing, the idea of the writer pulling the strings diminishes. Cause and effect hide the writer’s hand.
A character engaged in purposeful action always draws the reader’s attention.
Of course, you can still lose that attention—bore the reader, stretch their credulity beyond the breaking point. But if the character is in the process of achieving some goal, that will not feel contrived (even though it is).
If the character is passive and waits for things to happen before reacting, those events attract most of the attention. We’re watching them unfold just like the character is. And if things are all a bit convenient, it will stand out.
When the character is doing X in order to achieve Y, then the resulting Z will not be the focus, what the character chooses to do about Z will be the focus. That’s how you keep the contrivance hidden. You hold the focus on the character, and the easiest way to do that is to have him in motion, doing something, before the contrivance appears.
The one time you can expect a little latitude with a contrived plot point is at the start of a story. If the event that kicks everything off is a bit unlikely, that’s okay, since the story is about the consequence of that event. You’re in effect saying: Wow, that’s some crazy shit that just happened. What would you do if that happened? Although, you still have to watch out for clichés (how many ‘won the lottery’ stories have you seen where it turns out money does not bring happiness?)
Of course, I’m using very broad examples, the actual story still needs to be worked on to hide the cracks. The stronger the reason for the character’s actions, the less contrived any outcome will seem. If off duty officer Jack Tufty goes to the store because he fancies some Cheetos, and there happens to be a robbery in progress, it can work, but it’s a bit weak. If he’s going to the store to buy Cheetos for his pregnant girlfriend who has a craving for them, then it won’t seem so contrived when he walks into a robbery in progress. In fact he’ll have more at stake and the reader’s complete attention. But the whole thing is still completely and utterly contrived.
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