Friday, March 5, 2010

What Makes a Plot Contrived?

A conversation came up on one of my boards about plots, and how to know if a plot is contrived or not, and if it is, what does that mean?  So let's talk about that today.

According to the dictionary, "contrived" means something that is so unexpected, unrealistic and/or unconvincing that it affects the suspension of disbelief.  It is something that is implausible, and doesn't come naturally to your characters or to the basic plot of the story.  It is something that you ordinarily would not even think about putting into your story, until you write yourself ( your characters) into a situation that you don't know how to get them out of.  What to do?  You come up with a solution that temporarily creates drama or tension of some sort that, in turn, resolves that particular situation.  You have contrived a solution that is totally unrealistic in terms of your characters' behaviors and actions.

Let's take an example:  Your main characters are a boy and girl, 12-13 years old.  They want to have horses but their parents say no, they are too irresponsible to have a horse.  The story revolves around their adventures in trying to prove to the parents that they can be responsible and learn how to take care of a horse.  They end up accidentally getting into a corral with a wild horse who doesn't trust people and is called a "rogue horse."  No one is around to hear their calls for help, so they decide to "tame" the horse and ride him out of the corral. The scene calls for them to teach him to trust them, and ends with them getting on his back and riding him away.  Totally unbelievable, totally unrealistic.  A contrived ending...which your readers are going to see through immediately. Sure, the kids themselves have solved their problem, but it is a completely implausible solution.

A contrived plot usually takes place because you the writer do not know your characters well enough to know what they are going to do when, where, why and how.  You are writing a plot driven story, rather than a character driven story.

Now, don't misunderstand me.  Many stories and novels are plot driven.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But that's where a lot of new writers get into trouble.  When the plot suddenly takes a turn you weren't expecting, and you don't know what to do next, you come up with some kind of plot twist.  It may be dramatic, tension-building, humorous, or whatever, but if it is implausible for your characters to  engage in that particular activity, event, dialogue or what have you, then  the twist becomes, in and of itself, unrealistic.  It becomes contrived.

Anything that you build into your story that doesn't keep the natural flow of the rest of the story going, becomes a contrivance of some kind. Now, sometimes, you can come up with a plausible reason for it, or for your characters to do whatever they have to do at that point.  But most of the time you can't, so why allow some kind of plot twist to happen in the first place?

One of the best ways to keep this from happening is to KNOW your characters. Know who they are, what they want, how they will go about getting what they want, how they will deal with conflict and rejection, and how they will resolve the problems they encounter.  If you plan your story around your characters, instead of around the plot, "contrivance" probably won't be a problem.  Make the plot fit the characters, instead of the characters fitting the plot.  That way, they will be unique, interesting and original, and they will carry the story, not the other way around.

Think about it.  Let me know.


  1. Mikki,
    This is some very good advice. I never thought about the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. So much that I still have to learn! Thank you for continuing to share your knowledge.

    Thought you might like to know that I have a visitor on my blog, today, who will be sharing her grampa's true-life adventures as a Rider on one of the Orphan Trains! There's room for everyone to gather in close and get to know Donna, while enjoying her wonderful story-telling talents. I look forward to seeing you there.

    Yaya's Changing World

  2. Mikki,
    Good advice. When you let your characters act and react, the plot should happen.

    I saw your post on ICL about having an opening in your online critique group. I would be interested.
    You can reach me through my website: