What Makes an Element in Your Story “Contrived” and How to Avoid It

So I started a book (of an author I don’t know) and just couldn’t get through it. The writing wasn’t too bad, but the storytelling was poor (maybe that’ll be next week’s blog post), and the dialogue felt a big unrealistic. Then I read some other people’s reviews and saw one word pop up several times: contrived. And I agreed. But I wondered if other readers, or the author himself really knew what that meant.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: “The climactic scene was too contrived,” or “The romance between those two characters was contrived.” But do you really know what it means and how to avoid it as an author? I hate it when non-writers throw it around to sound intellectual. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a full length book?! But the truth is that “contrivance” (as we’ll call it) can kill an otherwise fantastic story.

When people say something is contrived, it usually means that particular element of the story was forced. To me it usually means the author got lazy. Example: two main characters have been bickering (legit bickering, not flirty bickering) the whole story and in the last chapter they fall in love. Maybe the reader even wanted them to get together, but if you as an author don’t put the time in to make that match believable, even your most loyal readers will cry foul. Here’s the thing about storytelling: you pave the road for your reader.

There’s a dangerous philosophy out there that the reader is the enemy. That may work for certain genres, or scenarios but if you alienate your reader do you really expect them to come back for your next book? The reader is not the enemy. The reader is your companion, your partner in crime. You lay out the clues and trust his intelligence to put them together. You draw the map for her adventure and she follows it. While there is a time and place for shocking twists and surprise reveals, I maintain that most of the best stories are ones the reader can participate in. What does this mean?

The trouble with storytelling is that only a fraction of the story ends up on the page. If you’ve ever edited a book (your own or someone else’s) you’ll know how many scenes, sentences, and little facts end up in the scrap pile. Most books have a wealth of knowledge surrounding the characters, the world, and the plot of the story. My sister is making her first foray into storytelling and a few weeks ago she texted me this heart-wrenching question: “I can see the story going off in ten different directions. How do I know which story to tell?” When it comes down to it, oftentimes the difference between a fantastic story and a forgettable one, comes down to the storytelling. The best storytellers know exactly which details to give the reader and exactly which details to withhold. So what does this have to do with “contrivance” as we’re calling it?

If you’ve been told something is “contrived” in your story, it probably isn’t because it’s unrealistic, unbelievable, or cheesy. It probably means you jumped from A to C without a B. Or from B to C without an A. I’ll tell you a secret: most readers will believe anything if you prove it to them. The premise of your story can be unrealistic, but if it has sound internal logic, it can succeed. Most people are willing to accept that stories aren’t reality. But once they give you that much leeway, your job is to return their trust by crafting a credible little world.

Let’s go back to that example I gave earlier about contrived romance. As writers, we capitalize on readers’ expectations. They keep reading because they want to know what happens. Some readers are regular detectives and others not so much. But every reader makes predictions at some point, even if they are just vague intuitions: “I don’t like that guy.” And one of the very best ways to engage your reader is to plant these intuitions and then fulfill them (yes, I did just compare you to Cobb from Inception. You’re welcome). If you just throw things in from left field, you’ve missed the opportunity to have the reader connect with the story. You want your readers to be emotionally attached to your two main characters right? Well, how would you feel if two of your best friends suddenly told you they were in love and gave you no warning? This has happened to me and I felt cheated. Because there were no signs of it I felt like they were hiding it from me.

Jane Austen does a fantastic job of turning Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy from two people always at odds to two people in love. She brings the reader along on Lizzie’s journey. As Lizzie finds out more about Mr. Darcy’s true character, her resentment fades and so does ours. The whole book is filled with wonderful suspense because Austen lets us see just enough of what Darcy and Lizzie are thinking. If she had only written Lizzie’s perspective then Darcy’s proposal would have been quite the shocking plot twist. But it means so much more when we as the readers have received hints of his regard for her:

“But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.”

And in return we are given hints of Lizzie’s change of heart leading up to the conclusion of the book.

“She certainly did not hate him. No; hatred had vanished long ago, and she had almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against him, that could be so called. The respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities, though at first unwillingly admitted, had for some time ceased to be repugnant to her feelings; and it was now heightened into somewhat of a friendlier nature, by the testimony so highly in his favour, and bringing forward his disposition in so amiable a light, which yesterday had produced.”

But remember how her family felt when they find out about this romance? Without knowing the circumstances and conversations that had changed Lizzie’s mind, they thought she was acting out of character. I will also add that many writers have tried to replicate the “distant, proud man and intelligent woman” love story, but they usually fall short in painting the characters as realistic people and/or in putting forth believable circumstances for the change in heart.

Enough about contrived relationships. Let’s talk briefly about plot. What about contrived circumstances? I tend to believe that strong characters and a weak plot win over a strong plot with weak characters. But ideally we all shoot for strong plot and strong characters.

As I was saying earlier, one of the difficult things about stories is that they are artificial. You skip over the boring hours. You give the reader information they could never know in real life. You literally arrange people and events in order to achieve a certain outcome. Stories may be constructed, but the reader doesn’t want to feel like they were constructed. Every reader knows that you are the master puppeteer behind the curtain. But that doesn’t mean your character should get a break they don’t deserve.

I know it is so tempting to skip B to get to C because C is so exciting and important for your story. But it’s not worth losing your reader’s respect. Take the time to plant the seeds between B and C. Think it through. And if you are concerned about whether it seems contrived, get a second opinion. I don’t know, maybe I’m way off base here. What do you guys think? I would love to hear your thoughts and advice on how to avoid contrived scenarios.

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