Is there such a thing as plausible contrivance?
If we want to be philosophical about it, we could say that all fiction is in fact that very thing. We lie and contrive to create our stories and characters, and readers accept the Great Deception in order to play make believe with us.
But that’s not what I want to address in this post.
Instead, I’m thinking about the writer with a carefully outlined plot, where each event has been planned and placed in an order that makes sense and is driving the protagonist toward an exciting story climax. And yet, perhaps halfway through the story–or two-thirds of the way in–something goes amiss.
Let’s say you have Polly Protagonist in a tight spot. She barely escaped an ambush by irate werewolves. She’s been chased across Dark City. She’s cut off from her friends and the cops. She can’t get back to her fortress on Shady Elm Street. All she can do is take refuge with vampire queen Moira, who lets her in.
Fine and dandy so far.
However, the plot outline says that Moira is hostile. Okay, check.
The plot outline says that Moira’s brother learns what she’s done and overreacts, threatening to burn down Moira’s hive if she doesn’t kick Polly out immediately. Huh?
Let’s think about this. Doesn’t that seem harsh? Would Buddy actually burn out his sister? Are they enemies? Why? Couldn’t he just phone and suggest that Moira not harbor human Polly? Why the extreme overreaction?
The plot outline says that Polly must be cut off from all help at this point, so her situation will be harder, and she’ll have to turn to the Ancient Crone and strike a Fatal Bargain–something she’s dreaded since page 4.
So, in other words, the writer of this yarn needs Polly to be evicted by the vampires, thus keeping her in trouble.
[Push pause while we consider this for a moment.]
When you’re writing toward a particular turn of events or plot twist, beware of contrivance. Contrivance is simply when a story event occurs without plausible reason or motivation for the author’s convenience. While writers can pull off nearly any conceivable story action if they motivate it properly, in my example Moira and Buddy are not motivated. Therefore, on some level, what they’re doing is no longer plausible. And while it’s possible to create so much danger and froth in story action that readers might keep turning pages, the reader will start to doubt. And when readers doubt, they stop believing.
Sure, I can go back and devise a backstory where Moira and Buddy fall out, and now he’s always angry about how she runs the vampire hive, but why over-complicate my task? I need to think about the key to this plotting misstep, which is that Buddy overreacts.
If you’re plotting, you should always be able to answer that question for any character in your story at any point in the plot. If you don’t know, or you haven’t given the matter sufficient thought, you will fall into contrivance.
The important point is that Polly must be evicted. Yet Moira will seem peculiar indeed if she gives Polly refuge then kicks her out two pages later. Why would she do that? Sure, sure, she’s doing it because Buddy has threatened her, but why would he do that? I know I keep repeating this question, but it’s important and deserves an answer. How does he know Polly is there? Why should he care? What is the story situation anyway?
So if we want Polly evicted, we have to invent a plausible reason for Moira to change her mind. Perhaps Buddy doesn’t threaten her. Perhaps he’s learned Polly is hiding inside the hive and he’s concerned that the werewolves will next turn against the vampires in retaliation. Maybe a savage and costly war between the werewolves and vampires has just ended, and the new treaty is pretty shaky. Buddy doesn’t want the conflict to start up again. He doesn’t want his sister caught in the middle. So he warns her from concern for her safety.
Now, doesn’t this work as a reasonable motivator for Moira to apologize but firmly push Polly out into the cold?
The plot outline is saved, but we’ve ditched the contrivance factor.
Often writers make this type of error when the plot is clear, but writer fatigue or a desire to hurry and finish a long writing project rushes the typing along too fast–or too heedlessly. Be on the watch for it, and don’t let it slip past you. Vigilance can only result in a better, more enjoyable story.