Storytelling

Defeating the Contrivance Bogeyman

Old woman booing Buttercup in the Princess Bride

The Princess Bride has a contrived dream sequence that even the author makes fun of.

One of the most common bogeymen in storytelling is contrivance. A contrivance is a break in believability that calls attention to the goals of the storyteller. When the audience encounters one, they stop watching the marionettes in your puppet show and instead stare at the hands that move them. Contrivances can make your work feel cheap and your audience feel manipulated.

Ingredients of a Contrivance

Contrivances are somewhat subjective, but they are usually caused by these factors.

  • Deviation From ExpectationsAudience expectations provide the basis for believability, and setting the correct expectations for your story requires careful buildup. If you did not follow the rules you created in your beginning or your audience missed your hints, parts of your story may not be believable. For instance, if your hero starts shooting lasers from their eyes during the climax of your story, and this is the first time you’ve mentioned they had laser powers, your audience will probably find that unbelievable.
  • Storyteller Convenience: Not every unbelievable element is a contrivance; sometimes they appear to be an innocent mistake. They become contrivances when the audience has a reason to believe the storyteller did it on purpose as a cheap shortcut. This applies to story elements that feel intentional. They might tie all the loose plot ends in a pretty bow, raise the emotional intensity of the scene, or create an important conflict. If your hero not only has surprise laser powers but also uses those laser powers to transform a desperate situation into a happy ending, your audience will assume you wrote yourself into a corner and then used a cheap trick to get out of it.
  • Disingenuous Information Dispersal: Audiences try hard to understand what’s happening in a story, and they expect storytellers to “play fair” when handing out hints. What hints they expect depend on the viewpoint being used as well as the story’s framing premise. When the storyteller withholds information that would normally be available or replaces it with misinformation, the audience can feel tricked. For instance, if your hero with laser powers is the viewpoint character and you’re writing in close limited, readers will expect to know what the hero knows. If it turns out the hero was never worried about the perilous situation in your climax because they had secret laser powers, but readers weren’t in on this secret, your audience will probably feel manipulated when they discover the truth.

These elements give the audience the impression that events in the story are not happening because they would naturally happen that way but because the storyteller decided they should. This breaks immersion and sets up a strangely adversarial relationship between audience and storyteller.

Story Elements at High Risk for Contrivances

In your story, watch out for anything that is surprising to some degree or added to intensify the story without having a lasting effect on the plot. Here are some of the biggest culprits.

  • False Leads: These are things that appear to have more meaning to the story than they actually do. It includes bluffing the death of important characters only to reveal they’re alive, intense dream scenes that appear real until the character wakes up, or any red herrings presented in a mystery plotline.
  • Plot Twists: Whenever you plan something unexpected for your audience, watch out. This includes reveals, even ones that simply add more information rather than contradicting previous information. Plot twists get more perilous the more they are used to resolve conflicts rather than create them. If your hero seems to be in great peril but has a trick up their sleeve, their solution must be foreshadowed carefully.
  • Small but Extended Conflicts: Your audience will expect conflicts that are small in scale to end quickly. This is especially true when the conflict has several clear options for its resolution. Conflicts like these include love triangles where the character caught in the middle wavers back and forth and mysteries where one of two people is definitely the murderer but it’s hard to identify which. When you drag these conflicts out, it becomes less and less plausible that the characters haven’t solved them and moved on.
  • Plot Boosters: These are any story elements that do not appear to have a purpose in your story other than creating a reaction in the audience or assisting the plot. A frequent troublemaker is arbitrary magic rules like the protective charm from I Am Number Four, which somehow ensures that the protagonists must be be killed in a specific order and only works if they stay apart. Other facts about your world or characters can also be a culprit if they’re essential to the plot but don’t otherwise enrich the story. Unfortunately, the foreshadowing you’ll need to set expectations can also fall in this category.

Ways to Prevent Contrivances

While avoiding contrivances will never be easy or even perfect, thoughtful development and good habits will reduce the frequency of their occurrence.

Include Diligent Setup

The believability of your story is only as good as the groundwork you set for it. Creating consistent rules and giving your audience a good understanding of them will pay off later.

  • Create Rational Rules for Your World: Having your world, the societies in it, and the technology or magic they wield follow internally consistent rules will provide a reason for the existence of many story elements outside of mere plot convenience. If your world has a full moon festival celebrating the departure of the recent dead, then it won’t feel contrived when the spirit of someone who just died can only appear before the full moon.
  • Warn About Tragic Events: A gritty and generally dark atmosphere sets better expectations for bad endings. If you don’t want your audience to feel alienated when you kill an important character, first kill off a less important character the audience likes, someone they wouldn’t expect to die.
  • Explain Characters and Their Motivations Well: The audience needs to understand why characters make the decisions they do, especially when those decisions are a surprise. Help your audience understand any previous events or emotional needs that shape their actions. Illustrate a pattern of behavior similar to the important choice they make at the end.
  • Foreshadow Surprises: To make anything unexpected feel like it fits in, you’ll need foreshadowing. Your foreshadowing doesn’t have to include obvious hints, just context related to the unexpected element. If you reveal that two enemy factions are secretly working together, the turn of events will be more believable if you’ve told the audience that the factions are led by two sisters that were supposedly estranged.
  • Carefully Select the Point of View: The point of view you select for your story sets expectations for what you’re obligated to tell your audience and how accurate that information needs to be. If you’re writing in close limited, your audience will expect to know what your viewpoint character knows, but it can be inaccurate. If you are using omniscient, your narration should probably be accurate, but you can leave information out.

Play by Your Own Rules

Once you do all the diligent setup, avoid creating circumstances that seem unlikely given what you’ve established.

  • Don’t Repeat Unusual Occurrences: After your setup, your audience should have some idea of what circumstances are unusual; don’t let those become commonplace. For instance, the Star Trek franchise established transporter technology and then made it malfunction episode after episode. If you get stuck, adjust expectations by making new rules. In Star Trek, it helped when the writers established that a ship’s shields blocked transports.
  • Ditch Cultural Anomalies: When you establish traits for a fictional culture, that culture will probably include some less-than-noble rules. Don’t let your hero defy them without a second thought. Instead give your character a growth arc to learn that some elements of their culture are poisonous. That will establish new expectations about their behavior in regards to the culture they were raised in.
  • Avoid Unnatural Neatness: While good stories are neater than real life, anything that’s too neat needs a supporting explanation. If two important characters die, it will feel like an unlikely coincidence when the team of heroes gets enough revival potion to resurrect exactly two people.
  • Don’t Violate the Viewpoint: Sooner or later, you’ll run into the downsides of the point of view you’ve chosen. Maybe you’ve chosen a single close viewpoint, but now your hero knows a surprise reveal that you don’t want the audience to know yet. Avoid trying to narrate their viewpoint while concealing what they know. Instead look for ways to keep them ignorant.

Imbue Story Elements With Meaning

The more you craft scenes for their importance to the overall story rather than for an isolated effect, the less your audience will assume you wrote something out of convenience.

  • Use Central Elements in Your Opening: The opening of a story needs conflict, so many storytellers make up a short conflict to hook readers in the first few paragraphs. However, this will never work as well as starting with a threat or mystery that is relevant throughout the story. If you do need a separate conflict, use it to show character flaws that you’ll resolve later or highlight themes important to the work.
  • Give Your Foreshadowing Double Duty: Foreshadowing is essential to making other elements feel natural, but unfortunately the foreshadowing itself is likely to feel contrived. The trick is to make your foreshadowing provide some value in the moment it’s given as well as a later payoff. It could add humor, create suspense, or flesh out a character.
  • Give Events Lasting Consequences: A false lead may not mean what your audience expected, but it doesn’t have to be meaningless. If your hero is chased by a frightening monster during a dream only to wake up, embed an important clue about the monster in the dream. If your character dies only to be resurrected, make them haunted by angry spirits that hitched a ride from the afterlife.

While most contrivances can be predicted and prevented, they are also very subjective. One person’s contrivance may be another’s delightful surprise. Get feedback to help identify troublesome spots, but don’t put your story in limbo trying to make every tester happy. Lay out solid foundations, and you’ll end up with a strong story.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

 

Comments

  1. Nicole Montgomery

    This is such an excellent article! I reshared it on Google Plus, but I’d love to also share it to Pinterest–only I can’t because the app says there “are no pinnable images.”

    On my Pinterest board “For Writers” the most repinned article is you guys’ Five Plot Excuses No One Wants to Hear. Like every week there are two or three and I only have about 20 following that board. This is the same kind of wonderful evergreen writing advice that would get major repins. Please, please, please just put in an image that isn’t the featured image (i.e. it’s in the body), so your readers can pin your articles…

    I have no idea why the older article was pinnable (some encoding, I suppose), and the new ones aren’t, but pretty please add in some kind of image to the body for pinning?

    Thanks,
    Nicole

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Nicole, it’s very strange that the featured image isn’t pinnable. I’m looking into it. Don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed – hopefully in no more than a couple days. Thanks for your interest in sharing the article!

  2. Tamara Reuveni

    Contrivance should especially be avoided when writing mystery novels. The reader wants a chance to solve the mystery himself, and if the author withholds critical information because they want to do a dramatic reveal at the end, it feels unfair. This was the reason I didn’t like “The Girl on the Train”. It had the potential to be a really good story, but the author spent so much time laying false leads that she didn’t put in any real clues, and when she revealed who the real killer was it felt extremely contrived. I could practically hear the author going, “Surprise! That perfectly ordinary guy is actually a psychopath! Isn’t that a great plot twist? Aren’t I an awesome writer?”

  3. Lori Sizemore

    Excellent tips. I think sometimes we get too close to the story to see contrivance clearly and this article is very helpful.

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