What is a Contrived Story? – The Effects of Forced Writing

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:

11 thoughts on “What is a Contrived Story? – The Effects of Forced Writing

  1. I totally agree that lazy writing or rushed plotting can come across as contrived. Foreshadowing is one of my favourite tools as a writer to pave the path for the reader.

  2. This was so good! I love the video — so perfectly done. Thank you. I thought of of Marvel’s End Game when the “rat” conveniently steps on that lever on the time machine and brings back Ant-man. Okay, I know — movie not a book. But it is still all about story-telling. Now of course we’re willing to be believe pretty much anything when watching a movie about superheroes, but you’re so right! If it feels contrived, it will disappoint the audience. Now, don’t get me wrong, we all just went with it while watching Endgame, because we were all so invested at that point after, what 11 movies? But it still bothers me a bit. I also think of the countless romance novels that end up as Hallmark movies and how cliche and bad they are precisely because of this inability to connect the dots for the reader and viewer. Thank you for this post! I’m reminded of the work I have to do to make sure I keep a good thread in place in my own writing.

    • Thank you for this comment! Yes, I think superhero and Hallmark movies are two of the biggest culprits of contrived storytelling. While watching those movies, you can almost feel the writer rushing to deliver a script, following a formula that they know will sell, because… perhaps… there is a market for contrived stories?

      • Well, of course there are! Hahahaha! Hallmark has a whole network dedicated to it. But, in all fairness I know about them because I watch them too — clearly, I’m also Marvel fan — sometimes you just want a story you know the ending too. I don’t always want to read anything so in depth that I need to use my brain too much. Maybe contrived is also akin to passive/easy storytelling? I’m looking at it from the perspective of the consumer. You’re looking at as the writer. As the consumer I sometimes just need to know it’s going to end well, even if it’s cliche in every chapter or scene. Mindless TV/Movie watching. As a writer, I try never to be cliche or create contrived “coincidental” moments. But someone is getting paid for all them Hallmark movies that I watch once in a while and it’s not me so… they’re doing something right? Now you have me thinking… Thank you!

  3. Thanks for your essay. I am a mostly a pantser and I am sure that I have a variety of contrived scenes in my books. This is something that I need to watch out for. I appreciate your examples and the saves for contrived scenes.

  4. What a fun post and topic. Sometimes it takes me days thinking about something that happens in my story, trying to figure out how to make it more realistic or logical than contrived. Thanks, Elliot!

    • There is nothing better than figuring out a logical resolution to your story. It makes me feel like a scientist solving a complicated formula when I do hahaha Thank you, Raimey!

  5. The video is great! Are these your illustrations? The way you’re using the dual format of blog post and video is impressive.

    I’m on board with what you say. Contrived stories feel… like the writer wrote themselves into a situation they didn’t know how to get out of, then found a quick-fix to save the day. To me, I see this as a failure of vision, that the writer hasn’t fully imagined the reality of the characters and the situation they find themselves in, and as consequence they are prone to the temptations of cliched plot to wrap things up. That said, I’m saying this from the perspective of someone whose goal is character-driven, literary fiction. I understand that things might be different if the goal is a thriller or action story. I’m not sure.

    Thanks for sharing. Cheers!

    • Thank you for the kind words, Jimmy! Yes, those illustrations are by me lol I think the most important thing when it comes to writing fiction, where everything is imaginary, is whether or not the story is “believable”. Anytime you force a storyline, bending your story to get you out of a tight spot, you risk breaking that realism you created, but with a bit of work, you can bend it the other way. It’s all about balance.

      • Yes. The believability of it has to be key, to allow for that suspension of disbelief. The reader’ll just get pulled out of it if the solution is too simple.

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