Getting a plot to unfold just the way you want it to can be challenging. Sometimes we get so locked on how it should go, that we make it follow a certain path—even if there’s no reason for it to unfold that way at all. This can lead to lucky breaks for the protagonist that feel convenient at best, contrived at worst.
Contrived plots not only stretch plausibility, they also hurt an author’s credibility with readers. Readers trust us to tell them a solid tale, and they lose that faith if we cheat by forcing events to unfold in a way that allows our protagonists to win with no effort.
The incredibly lucky protagonist is probably the most common plot contrivance. Whatever needs to happen for the plot to move forward does, even if the protagonist doesn’t do anything but show up. These situations can feel perfectly fine to us as writers, because the information and forward movement is what needs to happen for the scene to work—the problem is that the protagonist did nothing to earn it, so there’s no conflict. And since a key piece of information often drops in the protagonist’s lap out of the blue, there’s no goal either, and probably no stakes.
Some argue that every story is contrived, because as writers, we manipulate what happens to tell our tale. On one hand this is true, but it’s how we manipulate that determines how contrived a story reads. For example, if we show our protagonist coming home from her karate class in the first few pages, it’s no surprise to readers when she’s able to fight off an attacker later. But if we mention she’s a black belt after the attack has been thwarted—or worse, comment that, “It was a good thing she’d just earned that black belt” during the attack, then the scene will likely feel contrived. The vital skill wasn’t in the story until it was needed.
That’s the key difference between plots that feel contrived and ones that feel plausible. Coincidences happen, and it’s not uncommon to have one or two occur in a story to make the whole thing work, but they typically work best when the coincidence is what brings people together or triggers the novel’s conflict, not the force behind getting the protagonist out of it.
General rule of thumb: If the contrivance hurts the protagonist, it’s usually okay. Contrivances that help the protagonist usually feel forced or overly convenient.
Let’s look at some common ways writers heap good luck on their protagonists:
Always being in the right place to overhear vital information: You can get away with one of these in a book, but more than that stretches credibility—especially if there’s no reason for the protagonist to be where she hears the information.
Possible fixes: Just give your protagonist a logical reason to be where they need to be to hear that information. If you have a lot of these in your story, cut a few and make the protagonist uncover this information on her own, through hard work or investigative skills.
Taking a wrong turn or getting lost puts the protagonist where she needs to be: These are particularly tricky, because they commonly come after a harrowing escape or chase scene that feels exciting, so it does seem like the protagonist “did something” to get there. But all she really did was happen across the right place by sheer luck, not because she worked to get there.
Possible fixes: Give the protagonist a reason to go where she does. She might see a turn off she recognizes, or remembers something she uncovered earlier. Maybe she’s trying to get to a nearby location that will put her close enough to logically find the right spot.
Random people give the protagonist what she needs with no effort on her part: This is one of the more common contrivances in a novel, because the protagonist is technically working toward her goal—it’s just that everyone she speaks to gives her what she needs without her having to do anything but show up. For example, she’s at a dead-end in her investigation and stops at a random diner for lunch, but while talking to the waiter, he just “happens to know” exactly the information she was trying to discover all day.
Possible fixes: Make the protagonist earn the information. Show skill or guile in interviewing witnesses or talking to people. Let some people not want to help her or even give her bad information. Remember, no one has a reason to help the protagonist, and some might even have reason not to. Think about how those characters, small as they are, would feel and act in this situation.
A problem is solved out of the blue right when the protagonist needs it: The most common example here is the person with money trouble who receives an inheritance right when she needs it, but any unexpected “rescue” can be a problem. The protagonist finds herself in a situation that will take a lot of effort to get out of, but someone or something appears and either solves it, or makes it trivial to obtain success.
Possible fixes: Give the protagonist a goal to work toward to solve the problem. If she needs money, she has to come up with a way to get it. If she’s stuck somewhere, she has to use her own ingenuity to get unstuck. Don’t give her the easy way out, make her work for it.
Bad guys constantly make mistakes that aid the protagonist: The poor, unlucky villain who never catches a break falls into this category. The reason the protagonist wins is because the antagonist messes up; it’s not due to any effort on the protagonist’s part. What’s worse is that often the only way the protagonist can win is if the bad guys fail, so it’s not really a win. Had the protagonist not been there, the same outcome would have occurred.
Possible fixes: Make the bad guys smart. Give them good ideas and solid plans to thwart the protagonist. Even if they’re just henchmen, their boss knows what to do and does it well. Force the protagonist to be smarter and more clever than the bad guys.
If luck always breaks for the protagonist (even bad luck), then you might have a contrived conflict on your hands. Look for ways to turn that luck around and make the protagonist earn that victory.
Is your protagonist too lucky? What examples of too-lucky protagonists have you seen?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
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