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Sep
6th
2017

Some Writing-Related Questions · 8:38pm Sep 6th, 2017

One thing that I worry about when creating a new story is whether or not everything fits and is plausible. Two criticisms that seem to plague stories on a fundamental level, or at least criticisms that I've seen, are that a story is contrived, and a story is convoluted. I have trouble telling when a story is convoluted and when it's merely complex without fault. I have trouble telling when a situation is contrived in a positive manner and when it's in a negative manner. There are no professors I know here who I can go to for advice, so I'm putting my query here, in the hopes that someone might be able to help me out.

My questions:

1. When is a story or situation contrived in a negative manner? What do people mean when they criticize a story, situation or idea for being contrived?

2. When is a story convoluted, in place of being merely complex? Why do people call stories convoluted?

3. How difficult is it for authors to avoid contrivances and convolutions?

4. How do authors go about fixing contrivances and convolutions in later drafts of their stories?

These questions may seem dumb, but I'm going to ask it anyway for my own benefit. I would like to know so that I can avoid having contrived and convoluted plots, and create better story conflicts.

Comments ( 1 )

1. When is a story or situation contrived in a negative manner? What do people mean when they criticize a story, situation or idea for being contrived?
I think there are two kinds of things that fall under the category of contrivances:

  1. Coincidences the further the plot. For example, Twilight Sparkle just happened read about Nightmare Moon right before NMM’s prophesied return, and she just happened to run into the other five bearers of the Elements of Harmony during her first day in Ponyville. (Except some people wouldn’t call that contrived; more on that later.)
  2. Out-of-character behavior required by the plot. For example, “Spike at Your Service”, “Just for Sidekicks”, and “Princess Spike” all depended on Spike being out of his depth at some task—but only “Spike at Your Service” was really contrived. That episode depended on Spike failing at household chores that previous episodes had shown he was really good at, while the other two involved responsibilities that were above Spike’s pay grade to begin with, or simply too much for one person to reasonably handle.

2. When is a story convoluted, in place of being merely complex? Why do people call stories convoluted?
Separate the content of the story from how the story is told. Either part can be simple or complex. That gives four combinations: a complex story told in a simple way, a complex story told in a complex way, a simple story told in a simple way, and a simple story told in a complex way. “Convoluted” means, “It’s a simple story told in a complex way, and I didn’t like it.”

Take the movie Memento. It’s a complex story told in a complex way, so it’s not convoluted. The chronology is chopped to pieces, with part of the movie running forwards and part running backwards, and eventually they meet in the middle. But that weird presentation fits because (1) it puts the viewers into the shoes of the main character, who has anterograde amnesia, and (2) it ties into themes about the nature of truth and people lying to themselves.

Now take the movie Pacific Rim. It’s a simple story (giant robots punching giant monsters) told in a simple way. If I wanted to, I could make it a complex presentation by chopping it into pieces and rearranging it like Memento. But a jigsaw puzzle chronology like that just doesn’t fit with an escapist action movie about the power of teamwork. That would be convoluted.

Of course, chronological weirdness isn’t the only way to make a complex presentation. Plot twists, unreliable narrators, multiple first-person POV’s, epistolary stories, or time skips (that force the audience to infer what happened in between scenes) can also add complexity.

3. How difficult is it for authors to avoid contrivances and convolutions?
4. How do authors go about fixing contrivances and convolutions in later drafts of their stories?
For convolutions, I think the important thing is to ask yourself, “Why am I telling the story this way?” If you’re presenting it in a strange way, what advantage does it have over a more conventional narrative? If you’re writing a plot twist, is the big reveal something that would have completely changed the story if the characters had known from the beginning—or are you just hiding information from the audience for the hell of it? Basically, any time you add complexity to the story, have a reason for it.

Similarly, for contrivances of the out-of-character sort: look at all your characters in a given scene and for each of them, ask why they do what they do. You don’t need to spell out everyone’s motivation in the story itself; you just need to keep those motivations in your head so that their actions in the story are consistent with their character. If you can’t say why a character does what you’ve outlined for them to do, consider changing that. Let the character do something different, and see what happens—or change some other details about the story, so the out-of-character action is no longer necessary for the plot.

For coincidences that drive the plot... It’s nearly impossible to write a story without at least some coincidences. And they’re so common in stories that the audience barely even notices, unless they’re really huge and blatant. (Like my aforementioned example: Twilight learning about NMM and meeting the rest of the mane six in such a short time are big coincidences, but who in the audience noticed or cared about those?) And there’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much is too much. But I do have some general ideas:

  • Audiences are more forgiving of coincidences in the first act, and coincidences that make it possible for the story to happen in the first place.
  • Coincidences that make a problem harder to solve for the protagonist are more acceptable than ones that make a problem easier.
  • Audiences are more forgiving of coincidences that enable something to happen that they already want to happen.
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