Monday 7 November 2011

Contrivances Aplenty

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.

This is my 100th post! And I've also just made it to 500 followers! Thanks to all of you have dropped by to peruse my bi-weekly ramblings.  Cheers!


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Congratulations on your 100th post. I can't tell if you are saying contrivances are bad or good. It's more like you are laying out what they are. If I use one or two, does that make me a bad writer? I guess it's just like what you all boils down to skill. If I can skillfully hide it, then that makes the story better, right? Just don't be obvious.

mooderino said...

@Michael-I'm saying they're unavoidable. Use as many as you need, just use your skills to make them invisible.

Unknown said...

Great post and congrats on reaching 100!

Unknown said...

Congrats on the big 100! These reminders are needed at times. The cliches I hate, but even worse are those things that 1) resemble real life too much and 2) contrived and really, really not believable. When I read fiction, I want an alternative reality that doesn't sound fake. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Congratulations on both accounts! So active is better than passive - check!

Ryan Sullivan said...

I just love this post. I know there are certain contrivances earlier in my draft that I'll have to patch up, but I've got to finish the draft first, or else I'll never finish it. This is something to keep in mind for the whole book -- hiding all the little contrivances will make it more engaging.

mooderino said...

@EJ-thank you.

@Diane-it's difficult when you can make a character do anything, to make them do something they would actually do.

@Alex-not always, but it is when it comes to disguising the plotter's hand.

@Ryan-finishing the story is always a good place to start.

Sophia said...

Congrats on your 100th post. I was thinking about this when I needed a character to steal the MacGuffin that starts them down the plot path. Having the thief just happen to be in the right place at the right time and just happening to have the idea to take it was too, well, contrived. I hope I have a more plausible way of managing it now.

Rachna Chhabria said...

100 posts, that's great.

Jennie Bennett said...

Wow, I've never looked at it like that, but your right. Congrats on 100 posts and 500 followers! great job :)

mooderino said...

@Sophia-I'm reading a book right now where the pressure of wanting the two MCs to meet up is so intense I don't care how the author does it so long as he does. When you make the reader identify with the characters' desires I think you can do almost anything.


@JA Bennett-thanks.

Nancy Thompson said...

I love this line: "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)." Yeah, windows and reality TV!

This is a topic dear to my heart. While it's true that all stories are contrived, being too contrived is all the reason I need to put a book down. You make some great points here and leave me with many things to think about.

For me, it's kind of organic. If it's not, I've failed miserably.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Another great post!

My favorite part - "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."

Julie Daines said...

I found this to be a very interesting post. I totally agree with what you've said, I just don't think it's been outlined to me before in such a logical way. Nicely done.

Arlee Bird said...

I can guarantee you if I were writing my life's story I would definitely win the lottery. Wish we could have that kind of control that we have in writing.

Tossing It Out

nutschell said...

100 posts and 500 followers! Hurray! Congratulations, moody!

Btw, i totally agree that having a character who takes matters into his/her own hands is far more interesting to follow than a passive character who waits for things to happen.

Isis Rushdan said...

Way to go on reaching your 100th post!! You made some excellent points. If we hone our craft, then the reader shouldn't notice any of the tools we use.

MISH said...

Congratulations on 100 posts. And a thumbs-up to carefully constructed contrivances.
Very informative post... and it makes sense. I just never thought about it in this way.

Lydia Kang said...

Congrats on the landmark post and your followers! Well deserved. I always enjoy your posts, and this one is no exception.

LD Masterson said...

Congratulations on both mile stones. I enjoyed this post. Got me thinking in a slightly different direction. Thanks.

Amie Kaufman said...

Congratulations on both milestones! It's a good post for a landmark! You're right, of course -- a story can't happen without contrivances, but we can make sure we handle them well.

Lorena said...

"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."

I had never realized this (and contrivances ARE a problem in my writing.) So I'll give this a try. Thanks for another good article.

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