Contriving to be Stupid

One of the pitfalls writers can stumble into is when they know exactly where they want their story to go. Their ending and theme are clear in their minds, and they are so determined to reach that plot point that if they aren’t careful they may end up contriving part of the storyline to reach it.

Let me provide you with a couple of examples: [SPOILER ALERT!]

The 1940 film THE MORTAL STORM depicts a non-Jewish German family in the 1930s that begins as a comfortable, well-established, close-knit group but is torn apart as Hitler rises to power and the sons and their best friend are caught up in fascism. The film presents a chilling example of how dangerous peer pressure can be for adults, and was made as a warning at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in WWII.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Despite this compelling plot and its inherent conflict, the film stumbles at the climax. The heroine and her friend attempt to escape over the Alps and are nearly to the Austrian border where safety lies. (In the story’s time frame, Austria has not yet been annexed by Germany.) However, just as they have one last slope to ski down to safety, a German patrol shows up. All the couple has to do is wait until the patrol is gone. They are breathless and exhausted. They are hidden in the rocks with a good vantage point. Why not sit down and take a breather? Oh no! As soon as they see the patrol and exclaim in dismay that it’s shown up, they immediately launch their skis and head down a long, open, snow-covered slope where they can’t help but be spotted.

Now the whole point of this character action is to test the girl’s ex-fiance who is in command of the patrol. Will he order his men to open fire on his girlfriend? He does, and she’s killed. The screenwriter or director or producer wanted to depict how far her young man will go in order to follow Hitler. There’s a close up of the agony in his face as he gives the command. And the ending is very sad.

Except it’s not. How can viewers share emotionally in this “tragedy” when the girl has been so stupid? Her fate has been contrived to achieve a certain end, and it just doesn’t fly.

Here’s another example:

Some years ago, I was writing a historical romance set during the French Revolution for Harlequin Books. To tip the book from its mid-point into the third act, I needed the heroine to be abducted by the villain. So focused was I on this objective that I contrived her capture by having her leave her hiding place and go wandering out through an orchard in search of something to eat. The idea was that she would pick a peach, be seen, and although she would run for it, the villain would catch her.

Fortunately I had an editor that refused to pass such nonsense. She yanked my chain hard, calling my heroine “stupid.” And she was right. I had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite that story event completely, coming up with a much more plausible way for the heroine to land in trouble without being a complete idiot.

Here’s the lesson: of course every event in fiction is a contrivance. Writers are moving their characters here and there through a plot for a desired effect. The challenge lies in concealing that contrivance from readers, so that readers suspend disbelief and vicariously experience the story as it unfolds.

The trick in achieving that concealment hinges on proper character motivation for every action, no matter how risky. Failure to provide a plausible reason leads to characters that may be too stupid to live.  And stupid characters become unsympathetic characters.

Perhaps in THE MORTAL STORM the screenwriter wrote a valid reason for the couple to risk death in skiing where a German patrol could not help but see them. But it ended up on the cutting room floor. Oops.

My novel ended up with a rewrite and some Band-Aids, but it got the job done. Even so, I still wince when I think of that scene.

Know where you’re going, but avoid character stupidity in getting there.

 

 

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