The Problems with Contrived Writing Cannot be Overstated

Someone recently asked me about the meaning of contrived writing, and when I was coming up with some flagrant examples this brought to mind a wonderful crossword puzzle phrase: deus ex machina. I couldn’t remember how to pronounce it, so I went to dictionary.com and an elegant female voice enunciated it with what I assume to be the perfect inflection. And the correct delivery is critical to express the gravity of this devilishly problematic writing nightmare, which is “any artificial or improbable device resolving the difficulties of a plot.”

The Meaning of Contrived Writing Must be Clearly Understood

Some people assume “contrived” relates to material that is “obvious.” This, too, is certainly a meaning, but in the context of this article contrived writing relates to anything that would not occur without some sort of miraculous intervention. What makes contrived scenes particularly difficult to reconcile is that a great many genuinely superb writers have resorted to fantastic good fortune to preserve their plot lines. Unfortunately, this weak writing seldom saves the story. It’s important for a novelist to consider that a large number of readers will put down a book for good when a character’s actions are deemed to be beyond fortuitous.

We Might Expect Superman to Break Down a Door and Save the Editor of The Daily Planet, But Not to Do So on The Nightly News.

I refer to the writing of impossible scenes as the Marquez Syndrome. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a terrific story and in large measure contributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Noble Prize for Literature. But did the story require the mysticism? For me, it detracted from an otherwise perfectly executed saga. But this wasn’t contrived, just a vignette he employed in the tale. Some writers, however, have taken his technique to heart and utilized preternatural events to cover a plot point instead of writing relevance into the scene. Contrivance is much easier than going back in the narrative and creating a setup for the overall plot element, with some authors forgetting that a single nonconforming thread can dog an entire story.

Even the Bard Wasn’t Immune

But Shakespeare had an excuse. Other than CORIOLANUS and a couple of other not so egregious exceptions, he apparently was forced for a number of reasons to stick pretty close to a two-hour time frame for his plays. Yet, in my opinion, he made a mockery of the audience and later the reader with THE TEMPEST, a play that is one of his most acclaimed, and from which I remember several movies being made in just a short stretch (PROSPERO’S PAPERS, for one). With the ship’s being destroyed and the survivors stranded on the island in the opening act, the plot is horribly and irreparably vitiated when at the one-hour-and-fifty-nine minute mark the vessel is found to be intact. At least this story was a fantasy from the outset, although Prospero’s powers as a magician were never the catalyst for the wrecked ship’s sudden “appearance” in relatively sound condition, as the play’s chronology made this happen, not conjuring.

Not Many Can Claim the Skills of Marquez or Shakespeare

Since most of us don’t possess their genius for writing, or dozens of titles under our belts and an international following, we’re probably better served if we write our scenes–and most certainly our story finales–with acceptable possibilities. If anyone should remember the ending in the television series DALLAS, this is a prime example of what constitutes a contrived scene–and how devastating it can be to an entire body of work. Contrived scenes are a certain sign of lazy writing, and as harsh as this sounds, one of the best ways to guarantee never being considered for publication.

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

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