Sunday, September 18, 2005

Implausibility + Coincidence = Contrivance

In Stephen King's wonderful On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer wannabe or even just any fan of King's as it is a cool autobiography as well as an advice book), he uses a parallel between his wizened old uncle's toolbox containing every tool necessary to solve any fix-it problem with what a writer must do to be able to write well.

Quoting exactly from his text (and again, I recommend you go purchase this book!):

"I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you."

I love the imagery of a writer construction a mental toolbox full of the different tools writers can use to tell a story. Basics such as good grasp of grammar, spelling and the use of language make up the hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches, the absolute necessities. Practice with metaphor and simile and characterization become those specialized tools like the needle nose plier or the right angle drill necessary to do specific jobs. It's all very cool.

Except, I find myself trying to use tools that I'm not so sure are legal. I don't mean legal as in they're going to haul my butt off to prison. I'm talking in borderline acceptable because if used poorly, they will cause the reader to hurl my book against the wall in exasperation or disgust.

These two particular tools are coincidence and implausibility.

You know, those two components of Too Stupid Too Live behaviour that can drive anyone crazy.

But I'm not talking so much about actions the character takes that make him or her TSTL. I'm talking about premises that have such simple solutions no amount of contorting will work to stretch them into novel-length plots. I mean, how do you drive a plot around a premise that, honestly, any sane person could solve in such a way as to end the story immediately?

In my case, I came up with a really cool "What if" scenario wherein the heroine finds herself in possession of something questionable. Thing is, any semi-intelligent person would immediatly take said item to the police and say "Hey, look at this. I think this is a bad thing!"

But if the heroine does this, the story ends at page 7.

So, you say, no biggie. You just need a Very Good Reason why this person wouldn't take the no-no object to the police.

And this is where I run into implausibility. I just cannot imagine a good reason for not taking something to the police. I should clarify. I just cannot imagine a good reason that is not hyper-melodramatic for not taking something to the police. A lot of times, the reason is a result of very timely coincidence, so timely, in fact, that the reason becomes completely transparent as nothing more than a contrivance to create conflict. I don't think contrivance is even acknowledged as an official writer's tool. In fact, writers who use contrivance are usually considered tools themselves.

I can't tell you how many movies I watch these days that include a moment when I throw my hands up and cry TSTL because the hero/heroine/villain whoever doesn't do the reasonable thing. The premise and its subsequence conflict are so easily solved that the characters are made to do asshat things just so we won't pack up our popcorn and walk out of the theatre.

I know that real life is waaayyy stranger than fiction. Only in real life could some 100,000 be left for four days in an overcrowded sports arena with no food, no water, no toilets, and roaming gangs of gun-toting thugs. Surely a set up for drama of the highest and most terrifying form.

But can you give me a single example of a real life woman who, when alone in a dark, spooky house, doesn't run next door to the neighbor's the second she suspects someone is lurking about upstairs but rather decides to investigate on her own. Heck, I've been known to have a freak out moment and call my mother to tell her to call me back in five minutes to make sure I haven't been murdered just because I've heard a scary sound in the basement.

Perhaps what I need to do is ignore my own real good common sense to a big degree. Otherwise I have to accept a certain level of TSTL behaviour on the part of my characters, or I have to be willing to whip out those heavy duty coincidence and implausibility tools and use them without mercy.

Except, I don't want to have stupid people in my stories. Which means, some of my premises will have to be forgotten when I can't come up with a dang good reason the resolution wasn't figured out immediately.


1 comment:

Jill Monroe said...

Bummer is right, Lynn. I think I've come up with something really good, and then one of my cps will ask why my heroine would do something that was just so stupid. Reading a lot of reviews, stupid acting heroines are a BIG pet peeve (and deservedly so). I deleted quite a few scenes or changed somthing...but I'm kind of stubborn and will always think the way I had it before was MUCH better ; )