Avoid a Contrived Story

It’s very common for writers to orchestrate certain things that they think work for their story, whether it’s something to do with the plot or the characters or situations, but in reality what they end up doing is creating a contrived story.

In writing, when something is contrived, it means that some aspects of the story have been deliberately created or forced into being, rather than happening organically or naturally because of the story. The result is that some plots and situations stretch plausibility – something the readers always notice.

It’s something all writers do at some point, but not all of them break this habit. So why do writers artificially engineer their stories in such a way to leave the reader thinking, “As if!”?

Every story needs to be plausible. The plot, the characters and the events all need to believable. Those key events need to happen functionally and organically because of the story arc, not because the writer has run out of ideas, or he hasn’t planned the story, or he needs to do something with the character to force the story forward. That’s how contrivances creep in.

For example, writers have a habit of making their hero super lucky. While coincidences and luck can happen, when faced with imminent danger, for instance, luck always seems parachute in a save the day, deus ex machina style.

Another example would be the lead character just so happens to know another language at the precise moment it’s required to get her out of trouble, however, the reader hasn’t been told of this before, so then it becomes contrived.

How many of us have put our hero in the right place at the right time to hear or see something vital that the plot needs, because convenience is better than offering a plausible reason? Or what about an intelligent protagonist doing something so dumb (and completely against her character), just to force the story in the direction you want it to go? This is also true of having characters do the exact thing needed at that precise moment – such as remembering a numerical code that, for the last 20 chapters she couldn’t recall – in order to open the safe, or disarm a bomb or whatever it might be.

Have you written other characters into the story just to provide your lead character with the information or things that they need to move on? Random people that have no connection to the plot, who just appear and are magically able to help the main character, will stand out like a proverbial sore thumb to the reader.

Contrivances happen because writers don’t pay enough attention to the story and all its intertwining threads. They forget that things happen for a reason and people act and react for a reason, organically and logically, and instead they force those reasons into being. In other words, they haven’t planned their novel as well as they think.

It’s easy to make intelligent characters do utterly stupid things to move the story forward, or have characters do something because of convenience - like suddenly remembering that Aunt Mary’s money stash is under the floorboard, just as the bad guys break into the house, despite not remembering for the entire story. It’s easy to make the hero suddenly able to do something to defeat the villain, which he was unable to do before (not unless he’s learned that specific skill during the story). It’s easy to have random strangers provide necessary information to the protagonist just at the moment he needs it, before they conveniently disappear from the story.

If you plan your story from the beginning, you can avoid the type of contrivances described. You need to know how your characters are going to reach their goals. Know who the key players are that will help them achieve this (rather than random people who have no bearing on the story), and have a rough idea how the story might end.

It’s important to outline your chapters so that you know how the story will progress chronologically and what your characters need to do in each chapter. This way, you’ll see the revelations or turning points will naturally from the story. The subplots will unfold organically from the story arc, as will other story threads. The functional order of these will make the story believable, because if you know where your story is going from the outset, then you won’t need to force situations to happen, or make characters do stupid things in order to get the story from A to B.

Like real life, coincidences and instances of luck do happen, but the reader will notice if the writer has forced the story direction and created contrived instances that render the story implausible, and they won’t appreciate it. Plan your story, pay attention to the plot and know exactly what your characters need to do.

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