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:

How to Start Writing? Find The Moment of Intensity

I was sitting down with a colleague the other day and he asked me how I start writing a story? There are many cliche answers for this. Start with an outline. Start with a character. Start with a climax. There isn’t a wrong answer for answering this and it’s different from person to person, but I wanted to respond with something genuine. How do I start writing a story? 

I find the moment of intensity. 

Every story should stem from at least one emotional moment, an emotional moment that binds the reader and creates a connection between a human and words on a page. This is what a good story does; it is a vessel for empathy. 

When I start a story, I think about that moment of intensity. A victory in a war. A loved one passes away at my side. A break up moments before the prom. Moments of intensity can come in any form but it needs to be recognized because that is where you need to take the audience. 

The story therefore becomes this vehicle that guides the reader towards this moment of intensity. Once you know where you are going with your story, you can decide how you want to take the readers there. 

What I find to be a beautiful thing is that once you reach one emotional moment, I have knocked over my first domino — one emotion triggers the next and so the story continues. 

So let me pose the question to you: How do you start your story? Do you start with something on the surface: a beautiful scenery or an old mansion? Or does it start somewhere deeper down: a character in a heated argument or a secret love affair revealed? Let me know. I’d love to hear your process. 

How to Write a Page-turner like Game of Thrones and Goosebumps

Have you ever read a Goosebump book by R.L. Stine? Maybe when you were a kid? Remember how they were structured? At the end of every chapter, there is a cliffhanger. You know, to keep your young mind reading.

R.L. Stine was a master at doing this, however, as we got older, we became more suspect — you can only trick us so many times with a “sound coming from behind a door” page-turning trick, and have it turn out to be a cat or something else inconsequential.

Example:

Last line in Chapter 26: I suddenly felt a chill. A dark shadow slid over me. And I realized I wasn’t alone in the house.

First paragraphs of Chapter 27: I spun around with a gasp.

Was it Shockro? Some other scary creature?

A tall figure leaned over me. I squinted in the darkness, struggling to see his face.

“Dad?”  I cried as he came into focus. “Dad I’m so glad to see you.”

-Shocker on Shock Street – RL Stine

goosebumps

You can do better. Yes, better than RL Stine.

When you write your compelling story, you can structure it in much of the same way as a Goosebump book. A cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. However, not every cliffhanger should be life or death. There needs to be a variety. You need to balance it.

The 10-Episode Structure

The structure I want to share with you today is taken from modern day 10-episode-seasons-television series, such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

At the end of every one of these episodes, you get emotionally invested. You have to keep watching. It’s not even a question. However, the only reason that you are emotionally attached to the story is that each chapter or episode itself has a Freytag’s pyramid to build up the tension.

When it is done well and when you reach the end — call it a cliffhanger or call it a hook, either way — you are hanging on until the very end of the season (for an ultimate hook that gets you anticipating the next one).

So like a novel, a television season has a story arch. From episode 1 to episode 10, John Snow or Walter White goes through an inevitable and surprising change.

What’s interesting is the way each episode when pulled out of the rest, can be analyzed and found to have its own story arch.

So you have the season’s story arch, which spans all 10 episodes and looks something like this:

story archAnd, each episode within itself will have its own story arch. Like this.

story arch10So each episode should begin with an inciting incident, followed by a rising action, culminating in a climax, and then a denouement where you can hint at the next inciting incident, which is why we never return to the same level of drama as the beginning. Things have changed.

Take, season one of Game of Thrones. I use this example because this season is as close to the book as you will find in any adaptation.

There are two main stories happening:

A) Ned becoming the hand of the king

B) Dany becoming Khal Drogo’s wife.

Game of Thrones (Season One) Endings Breakdown

Episode one: We start off by introducing all the characters and what their objectives are. Robert Baratheon arrives and encourages Eddard to leaves Winterfell. And that is the main conflict in the episode, will Ned leave his life or not. We find out that he does, and the episode ends with Bran getting pushed out of the castle window by Jamie. That is an epic cliffhanger.

Each episode after that offers a little more details and increases the stakes. Each ending with another cliffhanger.

love

Episode 2 ends with Bran waking up (oh no, is he going to reveal who pushed him?)

Episode 3 ends a shot of Ned watching Arya train, the sounds of real blades clashing, echoing in his head. (uh oh, he’s getting worried… what’s going to happen to him)

Episode 4 ends with Catelyn Stark arresting Tyrion Lannister in a tavern, accusing him of being the one who hired the assassin to kill Bran, concealing the Lannister’s secret. (this is surely a mistake, but is it?)

Episode 5 ends with a battle between Ned and Jamie out on the streets, Jamie has discovered that his brother has been captured. Ned ends up being stabbed in the knee.

Episode 6 ends with the B story about Daenerys in Essos. Remember what I said about building cliffhangers with variety. This is what’s happening, now it follows another character. The Dorathkis give her brother a golden crown, pouring gold on his head, thus freeing her from Viserys. And so the plot thickens on that end.

crown

Episode 7 ends with Joffrey claiming the throne after his father’s death and Ned accusing Joffrey of not being the rightful heir. Thus watches his men get slaughtered and Ned arrested for treason. (at this point, we still think Ned is the good guy and he can surely get out of this mess).

Episode 8 ends with Sansa begging mercy for her father to Joffrey. And Joffrey seems reasonable, offering that all Ned will have to do is confess his crime. (oh good, surely Ned will come to his senses)

Episode 9 ends with Ned having his head chopped off. (this is probably the most intense cliffhanger in the history of television.)

Episode 10 ends with Daenerys’ dragons hatching in the fire of Khal Drogo’s pyre.

dragon

End of season 1.

In the end, the story we set out to understand is made clear. We find out about Ned Stark’s journey as the hand of the king and we find out Daenerys experience as Khal Drogo’s wife, a Khaleesi. But as two stories are resolved, many more are revealed.

Exercise

Once you have the first draft of your story, you can start breaking it apart like a television series. Finding the micro story arch within the macro story. Once you have that you can create little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter or part, increasing the stakes each time.

Give this exercise a try and let me know how it turns out in the comments.

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Prezi Rethinks the PowerPoint with Engaging Presentations for Better Storytelling

The recruitment team at UBC understands that boring slideshows and unmemorable PowerPoints just aren’t doing it anymore. For their presenters whose goal is to engage the next generation of innovators, they need to be innovative themselves. That is why they have turned to Prezi, a cloud-based presentation platform.

Prezi captures landmarks, directing the audience from one checkpoint of knowledge to the next and then back to the central idea. In another word, instead of telling the story from a linear perspective, Prezi performs more like a tour guide leading the spectators through the presentation from one key point to the next. More like a blueprint, less like a timeline.

“What we are learning now is understanding how our brain works,” said Peter Arvai, CEO and cofounder of Prezi. “Let me illustrate this with a question to you: If I was to ask you what kitchen appliances you have in your home right now.”

Microwave, kettle, a toaster oven…

“Right,” Arvai continued, “and I guess what you just did was first imagined your kitchen, and then you imagined the counter in your kitchen. You zoomed in to your microwave. And then to remember the other things, you took a step back, you zoomed out and you looked at another part of the kitchen. And you remember the other things there.”

“Now, it’s equally important to observe what you didn’t do,” he added. “What you didn’t do is what you often see in PowerPoint slides. You didn’t have a list of words organized alphabetically or in another way.”

Prezi has figured out that people rely on landmarks to remember important information, whether it is navigation or trivial facts. Landmarks helped cavemen leave the caves to hunt and gather during the dawn of time, and now landmarks are helping presenters reach out to a wider audience. UBC have seen the value in Prezi’s ability to create landmarks and have been relying on it since to recruit new students from all around the world.

Two years ago, UBC made a conscious decision to switch from their customized Flash-based presentations to Prezi. Whether they are showcasing at high schools, community events, etc. the presentation is the main tool for the recruiters when appealing to perspective high school students.

“Depending on the group of student watching the presentation,” said Steve Taylor, prospective student marketing communications and social media specialist at UBC, “it’s really important that they have the ability to customize the presentation and tailor it a little bit for the group.”

The ability to modify on the fly is a big advantage for presenters since their audience are different every time. The cloud-base solution enables users to change aspects of the presentation on the way to the event and present it on any operational platforms. This allows for a more collaborate workflow that gives every member on the team a chance to chip in in real time. Flexibility, reliable support and visual appeal were the three aspects that made swapping over to Prezi worthwhile for the UBC recruitment team.

“The biggest thing for us is that the recruiters need to feel comfortable with the tools that they have when they are out on the road, because it is the most important thing they are bringing with them,” said Taylor. “And we feel Prezi fits that bill.”

At this moment, Prezi is currently working on features that help companies collaborate more effectively as a team, in addition to developing more seamless functionality between platforms, since users are creating presentations on tablets, smartphones, laptops, PC, etc.

“We’re deepening the user experience,” said Arvai. “We are adding important things that enable people to focus on the ideas and avoid having to spend energy on the technology.”