Yes, your story is contrived. ALL stories are contrived. The word contrived means to plan, to invent, to plot. And even pantsers plot and invent, regardless of whether or not they did it beforehand. I’d say, to an extent, even memoir is contrived because the way it’s told is often embellished or things are left out to make a better story.
The problem isn’t that a story is contrived. It’s that it’s poorly contrived.
A reader will feel a poorly contrived story. Things may seem too easy, too convenient, the conveniences too coincidental to make the story believable. Ever heard that saying, real life is stranger than fiction? Yup. Things happen in real life that, if they were written exactly as they happened, readers would find them unbelievable.
Not only that, it has to be believable within the story. Is it believable for a group of kids to be forced to kill each other? It was in the Hunger Games, but if you try to introduce that plot point in the middle of The Secret Garden, you’ve got a problem. This is my real problem with the ending of the last book in the Divergent series, Allegiant. I won’t give spoilers, but it wasn’t so much what happened that bothered me. I mean, I wasn’t happy about it, but I wouldn’t have thrown a fit if it had happened differently. The action that a certain character took felt extremely uncharacteristic. It made the event come off forced and I found out later, which confirmed my suspicions, that the author had that event planned from the beginning of the series.
Sometimes, your characters change on the page in ways you didn’t anticipate or plan for. This is why, even though I’m a hardcore planner, my outline and plans are always subject to change should the story go in a different direction than I anticipated. The benefit of planning ahead of time is that I can always keep my ideal ending in mind so that I can be sure every scene and action the character takes fits that ending and doesn’t feel forced or too convenient when we get there.
What’s the problem with easy?
You’ll hear people describe great books as “page-turners,” meaning that they didn’t want to put the book down, they didn’t want to stop reading. This happens through tension and suspense. Suspense is created when the reader doesn’t know what will happen. Big Little Lies was a great example of this. Throughout the story, we hear snippets of interviews from minor characters talking about a crime. The whole time I was trying to figure out the crime and the victim. Will Cinderella make it to the ball and find her prince? Will the sleeping princess ever wake up? These are issues of suspense. But tension is different.
Tension happens when there’s conflict. Cinderella wants to go to the ball. No problem. Without the evil step-mother to stop her, there’s no story. But add in one mean woman, bent on making life difficult, and you’ve got oodles of tension. What happens if Cinderella gets her chores done on time? Will her step-mother really let her go? But the dress! Ahhh! In the Disney version, I personally feel that the fairy godmother is a bit poorly contrived. Cinderella is left with nothing, no hope. Instead of her doing something to change her situation, like quickly sewing a new dress, stealing one, or going boldly in rags, a magical fairy shows up and poof–life is perfect and easy. Boring. Cinderella goes off with her perfect dress in a fancy coach and, of course, finds her price and he falls madly in love with her. What saves that story is the ticking midnight clock, the left-behind shoe, and the furious step-family who may or may not find out it was Cinderella who was the mysterious princess. In the Disney version, Cinderella has stuff happen to her, whereas in the Ever After version, she does it all on her own. She changes and makes it happen and there is no magic to rescue her. And it’s a much better telling of the classic story.
How to do contrived well.
I heard Lynne Barrett speak in January at Carlow University. She said, of coincidences in stories: “If the contrived incident created trouble rather than saving your characters, it’s well contrived.” So, when Prim’s name is chosen to enter the Hunger Games, it feels like incredibly bad luck and we feel sorry for her. There’s tension because we know she’s only 12, she’s off to her death, and she has a family who recently lost their father. In the case of the Hunger Games, I’d even say that had Katniss’s name been drawn, it would have felt somewhat poorly contrived because it was something that happened to the character, whereas Katniss’s decision to volunteer was her action that got her into trouble. Which felt real and heartbreaking and not at all poorly contrived. On the other hand, if you have a novel that’s all about a character’s dire financial troubles and at the end he wins the lottery and all his problems are solved… that’s a little too convenient, too easy, not interesting enough. The character hasn’t really done anything to make that happen and no, buying a lottery ticket is not a significant enough action to make it feel like he had a hand in fixing his own issues. We need to see the character grow.
David Farland recently blogged about the try/fail cycle. To have good tension and make things feel natural, your characters need to try to do stuff and fail at it. Repeatedly. Everything in your story should feel like two steps forward, one step back. If your character succeeds the first time, you’re going to lose that tension that makes a story interesting. Readers will be bored because there’s nothing to make them wonder “what if they can’t find/do/avoid X?”
Coincidences also won’t feel forced if something happens when or where a character would normally be. If a plane falls from the sky and lands on your character’s car, it won’t feel forced if that car is parked outside her house or place of work. But if she stopped at a bar when she’s been a sober recovering alcoholic for the whole book and the plane lands on her car while she’s there, that’s going to feel forced.
There must be consequences.
A great way to make a story feel forced is to build up an event that’s forbidden for your characters. Like she’s not allowed to go to the party. She sneaks out and goes anyway. Her parents never find out, nothing bad happens. Is that interesting? Or is it more interesting if your character thinks she got away with it until Mom says at breakfast the next morning, “By the way, you’re grounded because I heard you leave the house at midnight.” And being grounded means missing the prom and losing her dream date. Actions are meaningless if there is no consequence. And really, in real life, when are there not consequences? Even if something turns out good, it’s a consequence. We just write more interesting consequences. If you go to work, the consequence is that you get a paycheck. Not too interesting. But what if that paycheck—the expected consequence—suddenly didn’t happen? Now, maybe you’ve got a story.
This is also how we show the reader something about our characters. How they react to the consequences is an opportunity for growth. Maybe you character with the missing paycheck is weak and doesn’t say anything for a few weeks, only to go home and drown his sorrows in ice cream. But when he finally has had enough and burns the building down, we know something has changed in him. And then we can see how he reacts to the consequences of the arson. Will he turn himself in, will he run? And, based on what he does next, will he get caught? Will he go to jail? You can build a whole story on a string of what-if consequences and then put your character through the options and see what happens.
Contrived stories are only bad when they’re poorly contrived. Keep the consequences and tension high, keep your character failing and growing, and you’ll have a great story.