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Author Topic: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?  (Read 998 times)

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Offline NO1SY

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Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« on: June 10, 2020, 01:14:29 PM »
Quote
“The use of skill to create or bring about something, especially with a consequent effect of artificiality”

Or

Quote
“A device, especially in literary or artistic composition, which gives a sense of artificiality”

While the first definition could be seen as rather neutral, and therefore the verb “to contrive” could be an apt synonym simply for “to plan”, when we talk about contrivances in writing we refer to the second definition and it is often used as a critique to describe when a writer’s storytelling is so convenient or coincidental as to feel unnatural.

A massively popular use of contrivance is in everybody’s favourite YA story: J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter; when little baby Harry is saved from the Death Curse by his parents’ love.



I have been thinking more about this this recently as I have been watching Parasyte: The Maxim on Netflix and I began to notice some inner workings of the writing under-the-hood of the otherwise enjoyable superficial skin of a Sci-Fi Horror anime.


Spoilers for Parasyte: The Maxim:

The killing and subsequent takeover of Shinichi’s Mother is used as a convenient way to give the story a huge speed boost into a new plot direction. It allows for character development of Shinichi as he hesitates when faced with a monster that has taken the face of his mother, and then the rebuilding of his body by Migi when he is critically injured so that he can develop powers to rival the Parasites. It also begins the process of the public gaining knowledge of Parasites, starting with Shinichi’s father. The thing is, the circumstances of the Mother’s death are so completely unlucky or downright coincidental that it is near unbelievable with the amount of set up that they did:

The Parents go on a trip to a random place in the countryside and they go walking to some cliffs for the view. Around the same time somewhere along the same coastline, a human and a parasite get into a car accident and the parasite is forced to find a new female host. This is despite the most likely place for a parasite to head towards being more densely populated areas, not the countryside. Then, despite the parasite walking along a roadside with several cars passing, somehow it attacks no-one until it reaches Shinichi’s parents on the cliffs past a forest. And despite being shown to be in a weakened, non-optimal state, the parasite is still quite readily able to attack and kill the Mother.

Another example in the show is how the drama and tension between Shinichi and Satomi is maintained by Shinichi simply never telling her that his mother was killed. There are some undertones that suggest that he feels guilty and doesn’t want to talk about his mother. But telling Satomi would likely have gone a long way to alleviate her suspicions of the way he has “changed” and the reasons for it if she were to follow Okham’s Razor at all. Considering that he becomes less emotional as time goes on, it feels more and more silly that he doesn’t make this strategic decision, and seems to really only be that way to string out that dramatic/romantic tension between them.



Now it is important to understand that pretty much every story uses contrivance to some degree - from little things to challenge the main character to keep their story engaging, to huge amounts of it when stories deal with stuff like prophetic destiny. And more doesn’t necessarily mean worse. What really counts is how you hide it. Successful use of contrivance is all about how you can make it go unnoticed by using misdirection and sleight of hand. It feels bad when a reader can see something is happening unnaturally simply for the sake of plot progression, and in a lot of instances it can be immersion breaking. There is only so much that you can ask of a reader before they reach their limits with the suspension of disbelief. So you have to cover your tracks.

Going back to the Harry Potter example, personally, I think that this use of contrivance is horrible exceptionalism that really builds the main protagonist and main antagonist motivations, and the entire magic system, on very shaky ground. BUT, i would be remiss to say that it is not effectively swept under the rug for most people by essentially hiding it in a past event at the very beginning of a huge adventurous story, and by turning love into its own soft magic system that either enhances or undermines the rest of the established magic depending on who you are asking...

If your contrivance is happening during the main body of the story however - for instance: you need to get from point A to point C (travelling, training for combat, growing up, falling in love), but the journey through point B would take too long or be too boring or would require some really convoluted logic that you aren’t even sure you could pull off; so you skip point B entirely - a trick that may help is to sprinkle in a few mentions of events from “the journey” after the fact, even though the readers were never taken through it fully.

Therefore, something to avoid when you end up using contrivance is to make sure that it does not contradict any of the set up, rules or world-building that you have established before it. At that point, you are essentially creating a plot hole that you either have to explain away with more contrivance or you risk breaking your readers’ immersion.



Moving on... Ever get that feeling when reading or watching a series when you want to reach into the screen, grab the characters by the shoulders and shake them while screaming “JUST TALK TO ONE ANOTHER YOU MORONS, THEN EVERYTHING WOULD BE FINE!” Right in their faces? Yeah I get that a lot... Now, as I understand it, this can be very culture dependent, as in some cultures (like Japanese) people are often much more self contained or insular and therefore less likely to share problems - this should be born out in the writing of their character development to show that they tend to bottle up issues and try to deal with things themselves as a result of their upbringing or family dynamics etc.

However, if readers are not given an avenue into understanding how a character might be thinking or making decisions (i.e. their principles and how stringently they stick to them), not only will they struggle to relate to that character, but they will not be able to reconcile that character’s choice of actions if those actions ever appear slightly unintuitive or serve to create conflict or have negative consequences for that character.

This is often an issue with romances - from love at first sight type deals where there isn’t any build up and we don’t have an insight into why the character is smitten, to arguments between characters where they have shown a desire to make things better and have a piece of information that could diffuse the situation, but they say something else that makes things worse instead. For the former always try to establish, or at least indicate, the perspective character’s preferences somewhat beforehand so that if they suddenly develop feelings of some kind towards a newly introduced subject, readers have a kind of superficial checklist to go by also. For the latter, if the character is going to say the wrong thing in a situation then try to find a reason for them to do so, such as the other person says something spiteful that makes them want to retaliate in kind and forget to say the correct thing.



Anyways, that’s all I can think of for the moment. I hope that this all makes sense and is useful for anyone who finds themselves in the middle of contriving their storytelling. I believe that improving at this is a skill that really starts bumping writers out of the amateur level and on the way to more professional styles of writing. Good luck!
« Last Edit: June 10, 2020, 04:58:24 PM by NO1SY »

Offline Coryn

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #1 on: June 10, 2020, 05:12:29 PM »
I think this definitely brings up situations too where sometimes contrivance is called for in a way that the audience not only sees it, but is actively encouraged to nod along and get the joke. Obviously this is more of a comedic take, but I personally enjoy the joke of the hero overtly coming across the exact thing  that they need in that moment, but with a knowing wink to the camera if you will.

I think there are also times where the suspension of disbelief is allowed to be broken for these kinds of things. If we're watching a classic fantasy epic (or even a new one), seeing the hero wander into a wizard at just the moment they realize a wizard would be helpful is kinda what we want. It's comforting at times to see the old tropes played out. So what if it doesn't make sense? Sometimes a world in which you can just happen upon a wizard is the world you want to imagine being in.

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Offline NO1SY

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #2 on: June 10, 2020, 05:13:13 PM »
TL:DR

Try to write your story so that the events seem natural, except for when you can’t, then try to cover up the contrivance by distracting the reader with a bunch of other more natural stuff!


Also, a point I forgot to mention: Try to avoid using contrivances as solutions to the dilemmas in your stories, as this often leads to unsatisfying resolutions for readers. The classic example of this is the “force of will” meme in a lot of shounen stories, which has definitely lost its lustre after the 100th series has kicked that proverbially dead horse...

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Offline NO1SY

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #3 on: June 10, 2020, 05:26:33 PM »
but I personally enjoy the joke of the hero overtly coming across the exact thing  that they need in that moment, but with a knowing wink to the camera if you will.


It's comforting at times to see the old tropes played out. So what if it doesn't make sense? Sometimes a world in which you can just happen upon a wizard is the world you want to imagine being in.


I agree with you in as far as to say that the effect that the use of overt contrivance can be tempered by the promises that we set up in our writing initially. That is to say, if you are writing a comedy, you establish the tone and the style of humour of the story, and so of course when they want to buy a coffee and a $5 bill lands in the palm of their hand, or when they break the fourth wall, it is a moment of humour and not cringe.

Fantasy is another genre where suspension of disbelief is actually not as important as it may seem, or at least it is not as important as immersion. A fantasy story need only be internally consistent and compelling, and then by that point who cares if dragons or wizards are actually real or not!? They are as real as anything in that story. But the internal consistency is the thing. A world where you can happen upon a wizard is one thing when wizards are said to exist in the world - so you have a problem that you need a wizard to solve, you go looking for one or the situation draws a wizard to you, or maybe they just happen to chance upon you when wandering the road. A world where you have a problem that you cannot solve but it just so happens that a wizard shows up that can help, when at no point has there ever been mention of wizards in the story before, is contrived the further into the story you have gotten without establishing wizards as a part of the world.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2020, 06:08:36 PM by NO1SY »

Offline Suuper-san

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #4 on: June 30, 2020, 06:08:52 AM »
internal consistency is quite an important point, as what is applicable in one genre or story might not be in another.
if you have to use a contrivance to get something to happen then generally your story could use a look at on the logical level, as it means that somethings not working out.
But as said, comedy allows for playing it off, whereas a more serious story would require a proper explanation that fits into the worlds laws.
I remember in Hayate no Gotoku they introduced a train to get around the huge school grounds, and I think it went something like :
"Wait, we have a train?"
"Of course we do! it's been around since the beginning of the story and we've just never seen it! It's totally not that the author just thought that it would be a good thing to have and made it up now!"
comedy is a lot more forgiving
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Offline legomaestro

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #5 on: August 05, 2020, 03:24:14 AM »
Harry Potter did make me raise an eyebrow because I'm pretty sure many murdered parents were protecting loved ones at the moment of their demise. That being said it never really was a huge point for me. Either

1. Dumbledore lied/simplified the actual cause of the misfire or

2. Harry got lucky

As a viewer I swept it under the rug. Suspension of disbelief I guess is the term.  But yeah I get that moment when you're screaming at characters to not be fools. I recognize it all the more in horror films and funny enough sometimes I'm so frustrated by their idiocy that I laugh at their fate.

Funny enough, there's a huge argument about that about a characters' actions in a certain recent survival game.



Personally when I really try to write down some of the plot points of my own life, if I were watching it on a TV I'd say 'What!? How!?' Contrivance exists in reality too. It's fine all the more if it exists in fiction.

Offline NO1SY

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #6 on: August 05, 2020, 08:21:15 AM »
I don’t know if you can call the events that make up your own past life story “Contrivances” in the canonical sense...?

Real life events can be surprisingly odd, coincidental or dumbfounding, but just because they are unbelievable doesn’t mean that they were “contrived” for the sole reason of progressing your (life) story. That seems like post-hoc rationalisation to me... (unless you are religious and believe in a divine plan).

There is something akin to contrivance in our real lives I guess. “You reap what you sow”, “Diligence begets good luck”, and a million other quotes about preparedness suggest that you can essentially stack the deck for yourself in the future in some sort of deterministic way - If you believe that sets of conditions necessarily lead to predictable outcomes. A difficulty here is that, with how many interacting systems exist in your life and the world, the level of variability, even when you try contrive your own life’s path, is massive.

Moreover, I think it is worth distinguishing overly contrived literature from just general planning and story telling. The latter is as natural a part of your own life as it is a part of simply writing your stories. The former results in issues of immersion and suspension of disbelief.

Offline Coryn

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #7 on: August 06, 2020, 09:58:00 AM »
I think the difference with Harry Potter (and maybe the whole flip side argument to this topic), is that in the first book the whole "mother's love" thing feels contrived, but then as we get to subsequent books, more and more reasons are introduced as to why events happen as they did. Eventually the whole picture is given, but for a time it feels off.

My thinking is that to avoid feeling like a contrivance, you have to leave a breadcrumb or two to let the reader know that this is going somewhere, and it's not something you just pulled out of your behind.

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Offline Karlin

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #8 on: August 17, 2020, 09:18:51 AM »
Hi, I'm new here.  I think we can use traditional legends as a guide sometimes. Like getting from point A to point B, even geographically, is sometimes accomplished by a 'contrived' miraculous method, like "Kwisatz Haderach" in some Hassidic tales (and also used in Dune).  It works in traditional legends if it fits in the legend's world, without feeling contrived. If it comes totally out of the blue- that's a different tale. Didn't some of the ancient Greek plays do that? 

Offline Coryn

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Re: Contrivance - A Flaw or a Skill?
« Reply #9 on: August 17, 2020, 11:57:16 AM »
Yeah for sure. At the "end" of the Odyssey (as the last few days of the story take place over a quarter of the book), Odysseus sleeps through his final journey home in a single night, even though he's otherwise spent years and years trying to get home. It certainly adds magical feel to the world of the story (even if the poor rowers who got him halfway across the agean in a single night got turned to stone for their trouble).

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