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Monday, May 1

6 Ways to Identify a Contrived Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Contrived plots not only stretch plausibility, they hurt an author’s credibility with readers. They trust us to tell them a solid tale, and they lose that faith if we cheat by forcing events to unfold and benefit our protagonists so they win with no effort.

Some argue that every story is contrived, because as writers, we manipulate what happens to tell our tale. On one hand this is true, but it’s how we manipulate that determines how contrived a story reads. For example, if we show our protagonist coming home from her karate class in the first few pages, it’s no surprise to readers when she’s able to fight off an attacker later. But if we mention she’s a black belt after the attack has been thwarted—or worse, comment that, “it was good thing she’d just earned that black belt” during the attack, then it’ll likely feel contrived. The vital skill wasn’t in the story until it was needed.

That’s the key difference between contrived and plausible. Coincidences can and do happen, and it’s not uncommon to have one or two in a story to make the whole thing work, but they typically work best when the coincidence is what brings people together or triggers the novel’s conflict, not the force behind getting the protagonist out of it.

General rule of thumb:
If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient.

Common Contrived Situations


Let’s look at some of the more common situations that could mean a contrived plot. While not every coincidence will kill your novel, too many of them will make it feel forced. Be wary if you spot more than a few of these in your novel:

1. The protagonist is incredibly lucky

The incredibly lucky protagonist is probably the most common way we force our plots to unfold the way we want them to. Whatever needs to happen for the plot to move forward does, even if the protagonist doesn’t do anything but show up. These situations can feel perfectly fine to us as writers, because the information and forward movement is what needs to happen for the scene to work—the problem is that the protagonist did nothing to earn it, so there’s no conflict. And since a key piece of information often drops in the protagonist’s lap out of the blue, there’s no goal either, and probably no stakes.

Lucky breaks include:

Always being in the right place to overhear vital information: You can get away with one of these in a book, but more than that—especially if there’s no reason for the protagonist to be where she hears the information—stretches credibility.

Taking a wrong turn or getting lost puts the protagonist where she needs to be: These are particularly tricky, because they commonly come after a harrowing escape or chase scene that feels exciting, so it does seem like the protagonist “did something” to get there. But all she really did was happen across the right place by sheer luck, not because she worked to get there.

Random people have what the protagonist needs with no effort on her part: This is one of the more common contrivances in a novel, because the protagonist is technically working toward her goal—it’s just that everyone she speaks to hands her what she needs. For example, she’s at a dead end and stops at a random diner for lunch, and when she questions the waiter, he tells her exactly what she was trying to find out all day.

A problem is solved out of the blue right when the protagonist needs it: The most common example here is the person with money trouble who receives an inheritance right when she needs it, but any unexpected “rescue” can be a problem. The protagonist find herself in a situation that will take a lot of effort to get out of, but someone or something appears and either solves it, or makes it trivial to obtain success.

(Here’s more on creating too-perfect and too-lucky characters)

2. Characters act “on a whim” or have and do the exact thing needed to move the plot forward

Anytime you use the words “suddenly,” “on a whim,” or “on a hunch,” stop and make sure there’s a logical reason for the character to be doing whatever she’s doing. Actions triggered by following logical clues and plausible segues are great and lead the protagonist where she needs to go, but be wary when the only reason she acts is due to a wild hunch based on nothing.

3. Characters have “sudden suspicions” about someone they have no reason to suspect—and they’re right

While very similar to the “whim” issue, this one is created when a character has trusted or believed another for a large portion of the book, and then out of the blue, the protagonist gets suspicious. The character has done nothing to make anyone suspicious, though the protagonist often thinks, “they’ve been acting weird lately,” and acts against them in some way—most commonly by following them, searching their belongings, or preparing for an “inevitable betrayal” they had no reason to think was coming. Naturally, these sudden suspicious always turn out to be correct.

4. A convenient, unmentioned-before-it-was-needed detail provides the reason for something to happen

Like the karate example from above, we backfill the necessary reason so the plot works the way we want it to. Often, these slip in because we realize we need a reason for X to happen when we’re writing it, so we create a reason on the fly without ever laying the groundwork. I wrote one of these in my current WIP by not mentioning the sidekick was going on vacation until my protagonist needed her to have a week off so she could accompany her. Luckily, these contrivances are easy to fix—just slip in the information before it’s needed.

(Here’s more on writing plots that don't feel like a coincidence)

5. Bad guys constantly make mistakes that aid the protagonist

The poor, unlucky villain who never catches a break falls into this category. The reason the protagonist wins is because the antagonist messes up; it’s not due to any effort on her part. What’s worse, is that often the only way the protagonist can win is if the bad guys fail, so it’s not really a win. Had the protagonist not been there, the same outcome would have occurred.

6. People running into each other when there’s no reason for them to do so

Sometimes we need to have two people randomly bump into each other at the right times. When the groundwork has been laid to show that it’s plausible for this to happen, it feels like a natural coincidence and readers read right past it. But when there’s no way these two people would ever be at this location, let alone at the same time, it’s going to stretch credibility. But be extra careful here—it’s easy to create a contrivance while trying to establish a reason for them to meet in this way. Make sure the reasons are sound and fit the story and characters so it feels believable.

(Here's more on filling plot holes in your novel)

In a novel, we have to manipulate events a little to tell the story we want to tell. The trick is to nudge the characters and events just enough to direct the story without forcing the story, or drawing the reader’s attention to what we’re doing.

Coincidences do happen, and plots are all about getting the characters to do what we want them to, but the beauty of a good novel is that it doesn’t feel like we’re behind it pulling the strings.

Have you seen or read any contrivances lately? Have you written any?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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10 comments:

  1. Some of these, especially that one about always being in the right place to overhear important info, reminds me of Harry Potter.

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    1. It happens in a lot of books, though I have seen an entire set of memes devotes to HP being the luckiest orphan alive and that he does nothing to solve anything :) Goes to show anything can be done and still be successful, even when it breaks all the "rules."

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  2. Number 5 annoys me the most. Incompetent villains can be funny in comedies, but in more dramatic works, careless villains drag down the protagonists. How impressive is it to watch/read about a protag who was only able to progress through the plot because the villain, I don't know, left his facebook open on a public computer? The protag doesn't look like a skilled sleuth, the villain looks like a bumbling moron.

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    1. Absolutely. I love skilled bad guys. Hans Gruber from Die Hard is still one of my all-time favorites.

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  3. I call them "yeah right" moments. It's always easier to spot them in someone else's work than in your own, though.

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    1. Perfect name for them. I wish I'd used that!

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  4. Thanks, Janice.

    "If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient."

    Excellent advice.

    I always groan inside when the hero staggers out of a building two seconds before it explodes. Or when the answer to a problem appears like a light bulb over someone's head after another character says something that sparks an idea.

    Coincidences happen in real life. When we insert them in a story, readers tsk-tsk.

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    1. I don't mind the light bulb moments so much if they get there logically. It's the out of the blue stuff that annoys me.

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  5. There might be another one. When the victim is running all over the place, but the villain happens to wait for the victim at the exact place she will end up. The villain being two paces ahead of the victim. This happens a lot in movies.

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    1. Ooo good one. There are plenty more than I used here, but I tried to grab the big ones :)

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