The heroine is cornered. Laser beams and death rays are aimed at her. The villain now has his chance to destroy his enemy, leaving him free to take over the world. But then, just before the laser beams and death rays are fully charged, the heroine sees an open panel beneath the floorboard. She heads towards it and escapes. In the same moment, the villain’s goofy sidekick bumps the button and suddenly the weapons of mass destruction are turned upon them. The evil HQ explodes. The heroine gets out in the knick of time, saving the day!
Looking at this story, you may think a few things:
“Wow! The heroine got very lucky!”
“And the bad guys had a series of convenient mistakes.”
Or you may think, “Hmmm… This story was contrived.”
That was certainly what Becky thought when she folded the book and read the embossed text of the author’s name, JLL Rubinsteen.
Rubinsteen is known for his fast pace stories, and while they are sometimes entertaining, many considered his storylines contrived. But what does “contrived” mean?
When someone is talking about a story being contrived, it usually means that it feels forced. In other words, the author got lazy and rushed. Yep, that’s you, Rubinsteen!
When Becky picked up the book, she expected an adventure! She wanted to start at one end of the story and arrive at the other, enjoying all the sights and sounds in between. A writer’s responsibility is to pave the roads. However, what a contrive storyteller does is that instead of taking a scenic route, it hops onto the freeway, or when traffic gets heavy, decides to take a shortcut, causing the reader to yes, arrive at the destination, but miss the joy of the ride.
Take the paragraph at the beginning. The heroine is cornered — a common place for writers to get stuck. When a heroine is trapped, the author might find an easy way for her to escape. In this case, the open panel in the floorboard, an element in the story not mentioned before. It just happened to be there and the heroine happened to see it. Just in time!
Another example is the goofy sidekick. How convenient of him to bump a button that causes the villain’s plans to backfire. The villain is vanquished and the world is saved. Easy! So easy that it feels forced by the author.
Even though Becky wanted the heroine to win at the end, the way in which it was accomplished made her feel a little ripped off. She invested all her time to read this? And this is how it ends?
There are arguments that all stories, to some degree, are contrived, because regardless, writers need to weave a tale together, manipulating certain aspects, so that the protagonist can go from the beginning to the end. A story is not like real life and will always be artificial.
However, we can also agree that some stories are more believable than others. That is because believable stories reveal the details in a functional order, requiring the writer to put in some work, dropping bread crumbs along the way so when the heroine is cornered, the escape route is doesn’t appear magically like a cheat, and the clumsy minion’s mistake is surprising, but not completely random.
If earlier in the story, Rubinsteen had described the evil lair as being rundown and in need of maintenance, talking about how his unreliable contractors are always leaving jobs unfinished, perhaps the open panel in the floorboard would be more believable.
If Rubinsteen mentioned that the laser beam and death ray rely on a cheap imported generator, because that’s all he could afford, then maybe the slow charging doesn’t seem like such a convenient delay for the heroine.
And finally, if Rubinsteen rounds out the evil sidekick’s character, making him more than a klutz. Then the reader can see that he is struggling with an internal battle over whether to do what his leader says and what his gut is telling him. Then the sudden slip on the button wouldn’t feel like a convenient end, but rather a character overcoming an obstacle. A redemption.
As you can see, all of these suggestions would require Rubinsteen to do more work, leading to that epic moment where the heroine is cornered by the laser beam and death ray. But it’s worth it, because by putting in the work, the events in the story will feel like they’ve happened naturally, as opposed to feeling artificial and unrealistic.
Yes, in stories we want heroes to win, mysteries to be uncovered, and lovers to get together, but the journeys in which these objectives are achieved are as important as the results. If a writer rushes through, missing necessary details about plot, characters, and settings, in another word, being too lazy to pave the path for the reader, then their story will ultimately come across as contrived.
Was there a part of a story that you’ve read or watched recently that felt contrived? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series: