QOTW: How Do You Keep Your Plot From Feeling Contrived?

14 Jan

This week’s QOTW comes from H. Holdsworth, who asks: How do you keep your plot from becoming contrived?


This is a tricky question since almost no plot can be completely “new”. Because of that, you can end up with that “contrived, ripped-off” feeling. I think the best way to avoid this is to give the story a unique aspect — maybe an ironic twist or a crazy-but-lovable character.

For example: wizarding schools? Done a thousand times. Boys who are the Only Ones to stop Evil Bad Guy? Also been done a thousand times. What makes Harry Potter special? The setting — Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, muggles, quidditch. It’s the world that made J.K. Rowling’s series really stand out and attract millions of readers.

Another example: vampire who loves a non-vampire? Done. An immortal who has waited forever to find his True Love? Done. What makes Twilight unique? That a vampire finds his true love, but he doesn’t just love her — he really wants to suck her blood and he’s not sure he can keep himself from doing it! That’s some situational irony. (Plus, it’s a great way to build tension! Whether or not this was intentional, it was a very clever plot device on Meyer’s part!)

One more example: noir detective stories? Definitely been done. Quest to solve best friend’s murder? Also been done. What makes Veronica Mars unique? The MC, Veronica — she’s a tough-as-nails teenager with sarcasm, sleuthing skills, and a softer side to boot. Viewers fell in love with her, and that kept us coming back each episode.

Honestly, though, you can’t avoid the tropes (see Jenn’s post if you don’t believe me). No matter what, something about your plot will leave someone thinking it’s a copy. But remember, no one can tell a story the way you would. Even if I used the exact same plot, scene for scene, it wouldn’t be the same because I can’t write what you write! Your voice is the ultimate weapon in your arsenal for uniqueness.

-The Newest LTWF Contributor With A Book Deal!


To me, a story seems contrived if its plot has twists and turns that aren’t properly set up.  For instance, if a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by a character conveniently having an ability that was unknown before the crisis moment, the solution feels contrived.  This kind of problem can be avoided by laying the foundation for events that are to come so that they don’t appear to come out of nowhere.  A story can also seem contrived if a character does something that just doesn’t fit with his or her previous behavior, such as a usually cautious mother asking a stranger to watch her child in a store, or a knight taking off his helmet in the midst of a battle.  When I read a story that has that type of inconsistency, I feel as if I can actually see the hand of the writer in the story, manipulating the characters like puppets so that the plot can take a certain turn.  Contrived stories have that feeling of working out conveniently for the writer.  To make your story ring true, take the time to create authentic characters and be sure that all of their actions are authentic, as well.

-The Writer Out on Subs


A plot feels contrived when the plot is too external– when it feels too much like the author is holding her characters on strings, orchestrating everything. When a character is fully developed, the plot twists and conflicts will come about organically– it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out. If too many external conflicts are used, it’s no longer the characters controlling the plot, but the writer, and then it starts to feel strained or forced. If you focus on developing your character, the plot will play out more naturally.

This is why I always reccomend that if you have a book idea, the first thing you do is figure out what kind of character would create the most conflict– whether that means a bossy Type A character who loses control, a fashoinista who ends up stranded in the woods, a socially awkward girl who ends up in high society, etc. If you truly think about what kind of characters will naturally create the most conflict, chances are the plot won’t feel forced.

-The Writer And Literary Agent



13 Responses to “QOTW: How Do You Keep Your Plot From Feeling Contrived?”

  1. authorguy January 14, 2011 at 9:54 AM #

    I completely agree. When the character is the focus, all the twists and turns will be natural outgrowths of his personality and development. The ‘plot’ is something he has to discover and deal with, based on whatever clues come his way in the course of the story. The plot appears contrived when the author arranges the other elements of the story around it, i.e., makes it too visible what the plot is. Joe acting out of character is as much a red flag as the camera lingering on the dropped cell phone. You know it’s going to matter later on. If it simply gets discovered and advances the plot, fine. But if the lack means that a guy who normally always calls suddenly doesn’t, then it starts to feel like a setup. I’m reminded of the woman’s notebook in the movie Working Girl. Her leaving it behind is crucial to the plot, but it wasn’t very well set up in earlier scenes that she was constantly forgetting it, so it seemed contrived.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • sdennard January 14, 2011 at 11:30 AM #

      So true!! And the notebook is a perfect example of a “coincidence” that makes the plot feel contrived. Like you said, if it had been set up earlier, it would have felt more natural. Great example. 🙂

  2. Mac_V January 14, 2011 at 10:18 AM #

    Ah, Veronica Mars. How I miss her. Seriously, why did that show get canceled?

    Great advice and so true. It’s the details that really make the story pull you in or not.

    Mac 🙂

    • sdennard January 14, 2011 at 11:28 AM #

      No kidding, Mac_V — Veronica Mars and Co. were so FANTASTIC. Alas…


  3. Patricia Beaudin January 14, 2011 at 1:46 PM #

    When it’s all been said and done before… That’s a toughie when it comes to writing. I’ve thought (and blogged) about this too and came up with the same conclusion. It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before, what matters is making it YOURS and giving it your touch that makes the story unique. If we all worried about doing something that’s never been done before, we’d never write another book.

  4. tymcon January 15, 2011 at 5:09 AM #

    Oh veronica mars (swoons) The actign was a bit off for a few of the characters (Logan good actor when he was bad, but bad actor when he was good)(But his father. Wowza) but it was damn good.

    I’m totally going to steal this off someone. A plot only feels contrived if the reader can see the twist coming

  5. H. Holdsworth January 19, 2011 at 1:35 AM #

    Great answers, everyone! I really appreciate your responses!

  6. Starving Sound January 29, 2011 at 10:36 PM #

    I don’t know why there always has to be foreshadowing in a plot. Your notebook example for example – why does she have to forget the notebook even once before to make it believable she lost it that once? In real life I don’t have to lose or forget something many times to lose or forget it once. I see what you’re saying – I get what your point is but I don’t think it rings true. That’s just what has been forced or ingrained into our heads how things should be done. And when it’s not people complain. Hell, it’s basically like saying coincidences aren’t real.

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 30, 2011 at 11:22 PM #

      Hi SS! I understand your point; coincidences do happen in life so they can’t always cause a plot to feel contrived. I think it’s generally the coincidences that make or break your story that feel forced and contrived.

    • Marc Vun Kannon January 31, 2011 at 6:51 AM #

      Normally I would agree with you, but in the case I mentioned-the MC forgetting her notebook in Working Girl-that was a critical plot point. Only that one act could bring the villain back into it. Coincidences work better if there are multiple paths the story could follow to reach its conclusion.

  7. Read this April 21, 2013 at 8:40 AM #

    Interesting read. I just read through another article
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    I don’t know if I agree with their viewpoint per say, I lean more towards this article and the facts here. But, I will say it’s an
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