A Writing Entry – Contrivance

or, “Lazy writing’s industrious cousin.”

There are a lot of ways for writing to go badLaziness is certainly one of them, but the use of contrivance is another.  Oddly, the dictionary definition of “contrive” is generally positive – “to form or think of a plan; to make (something) happen in a clever way or with difficulty,” while the dictionary definition of “contrivance” is quite negative – “something that causes things to happen in a story in a way that does not seem natural or believable.”  Through the course of this entry, I’m using contrive with a negative connotation.

Stories have internal logic.  There are rules by which the world and the characters behave.  It is up to me, the writer, to give enough information to you, the reader, to make sense of the world I present and understand the logic that governs it.  Even magic has logic.  I don’t necessarily have to explain the laws of physics or magic and in fact I probably shouldn’t because that is boring.  But I can describe a world that clearly has gravity and weather patterns and cultures.  This is the internal logic of my world.  Apples fall to the ground.  Birds fly in the air.  Warp engines should never be breached or they explode.  Wizards can fling fireballs if they have the proper magical components and full use of their hands and are able to speak.  Kings outrank dukes.  Bow-ties are cool.  You get the idea.

The use of contrivance most often occurs when a writer wants a certain event to happen in a story but the internal logic of the world would prevent this event.  Now it should be pointed out that since the writer can’t explain every little detail of the world that sometimes events will occur that might seem contrived.  The writer must walk a fine line between revealing new details of the world and using contrivances.  Generally, a revelation of new details enriches the plot and internal logic of the world.  Generally, using a contrivances means ignoring the internal logic of the world.  However, a contrived plot point may become part of the internal logic of the world, although it will still seem unnatural, forced, or unbelievable.  And of course, the difference between revelation and contrivance can be a matter of opinion.

To me, it’s easy to call an event a contrivance when the internal logic of the world is ignored.  It turns out lazy writing and contrivances often result in the same problems – fridge logic and chomper logic.  Sometimes a writer can get away with a contrivance until the story is done but sometimes it is so obvious the reader notices immediately.  It’s harder to call an event a contrivance when it is incorporated into the logic of the world.  However, I won’t say it’s impossible.  For example, Emma Frost‘s diamond body armor (why no, I’m not letting this go, why do you ask?).  The writer of the X-men at the time wanted to use Colossus but wasn’t allowed to, so he made a telepath into an indestructible tank.  The contrivance?  Secondary mutations.  Yes, this was incorporated into later stories, but it was no less a contrivance.

Using contrivances takes work.  The writer has to understand the internal logic of the world and realize there is no way to integrate the event without overt wedging or ridiculous explanations or just a deus ex machina to justify an event that is obviously contrived.  So why go through so much work?  Well, it’s either use a contrivance or significantly re-write the story.  I guess in that sense using a contrivance is still a form of laziness, but it’s still a lot of work.  As I said, usually a writer has to use a contrivance (or perhaps more than one) because s/he wants a certain event to happen (for whatever reason).

Here’s an example from Man of Steel:
In a flashback sequence, brooding Clark is remembering when he was a teenager fighting with Pa Kent about using his powers.  The fight takes place as the entire Kent family plus the dog are going somewhere in the car.

1) The Kents are caught in a traffic jam on a rural road in Kansas.
– To be fair, I suppose this could happen on a one lane road if everyone is going to or coming back from the same place.  But as the scene unfolds, the presence of bystanders is clearly a contrivance.

2) A tornado appears from the clear blue sky to threaten the Kents and everyone else on the road.
– This does not happen.  Lightning can strike from a seemingly clear blue sky, but tornadoes are spawned by powerful storm systems that do not spontaneously appear.

3) The Kents run to safety but the dog gets locked in the car.
– If there was no dog, there’d be no reason for any of the Kents to go back to the car. The dog is a contrived plot device, especially since we don’t see the dog any other flashback, not even in the background establishing shots.

4) The Kents all decide someone should risk their life to save the dog.
– I have pets, and I love them dearly.  But I’m not risking my life to save them nor would I let my family or friends do so either.

5) Pa Kent decides to go instead of Clark because he doesn’t want Clark to show off his powers in front of bystanders.
– As the scene unfolds, this is clearly a contrivance since Clark probably could have saved the dog without that happening.

6) Pa Kent saves the dog but gets his foot stuck, delaying his escape from the car.
– ARGH!  See?  If it had been Clark, he wouldn’t have gotten his foot stuck or could have wrenched it out and none of the bystanders would have possibly known.

7) Pa Kent refuses to let Clark come save him from the tornado and dies.
– I grew up in Tornado Alley.  I know exactly how dangerous and deadly tornadoes can be.  But there are stories of miracle survivals of both animals and humans.  I remember one about a cow that had been picked up and carried three miles from its pasture and was fine.  Perhaps some of these are urban legends, but some are verified.  So Pa and Clark are saved.  It’s a miracle.  Hallelujah!  Or, if Clark had gone instead of his father and been swept up and survived (as he obviously would have), it’s a miracle; hallelujah!

The whole sequence of events is nothing but a contrivance to make Clark more conflicted about using his powers.  Perhaps someone less familiar with tornadoes wouldn’t realize events 2 and 7 are contrivances, but everything else obviously is.  There was probably a better way to convey Clark’s emotional distress at using his powers than to have Pa Kent die.  If the writers simply had to have Pa Kent die, I’m certain there were better ways to write that.  There are so many points in that scene above in which the writers ignored the obvious course of action.  And for me, that mean there was nothing remotely believable about the scene.  Without being believable there was no emotion related to it; in short, the writers’ contrivance to make me feel sorry for Clark and Pa Kent completely failed.

The use of contrivances is just bad writing.  Comic book writers in particular have a difficult task because they don’t get to decide the internal logic of the world; they inherit it.  However, that doesn’t excuse using contrivances because they have a story to tell and find the internal logic of the world inconvenient at the time.  Ignoring or subverting the internal logic of the world only weakens the story.  The true revelations of plot are less exciting and interesting because the reader is jaded by contrivances disguised as plot revelations.  True emotional connections to characters are harder to write because again the reader is jaded by contrivances obviously written to produce an emotional response.  If the writer has to do the hard work of adjusting the internal logic of the world then the writer should either reconsider how badly this event is needed in the story or re-work the world and adjust the internal logic so the event seems natural instead of forced.  Putting in hard work to write something badly doesn’t make it better; bad writing is always bad writing no matter how much effort was spent.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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