Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How Convenient--Plot Contrivance

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Morgue File--o0o0xmods0o0o
Sometimes when we’re drafting a book or writing an outline, we’ll run into something that needs to happen in the plot, but is clumsy, or seems convenient or contrived.
I’m working on something now and ran into this problem.  As a matter of fact, I’ve run into this same exact problem in a different manuscript.  I need to have my sleuth’s home broken into. How can I get away with that?  She has nosy neighbors.  She’s alert.  She’s, as a matter of fact, an insomniac.  The villains in my stories are gifted amateurs, not career criminals with a knack for picking locks. 
It’s difficult to make this break-in happen without making my sleuth appear dumb, forgetful, careless, or generally unfit for sleuthing.
Why would she leave a door unlocked when there is a killer afoot?  How could my newbie killer easily and stealthily break into her house, if she hasn’t left the door unlocked?
How will she get away from this intruder once he gets in?  He intends to murder her since she’s such a pest and since she’s also discovered important information…that she doesn’t yet even realize is important.
It’s important that whatever reason I happen on is mentioned previously in the story.  In other words, I don’t suddenly need to have the intruder inside the house and have Myrtle think, “Oh no—I forgot to lock the door.”  Better to let the reader in on the forgetting when it happens, if that’s the approach I want to take with the contrivance.
So…I make my lists.  In the hopes of helping anyone else with their own plot holes and struggles with conveniences, I’ll share some of what would go onto mine:
She leaves the door unlocked because she’s lugging something heavy into the house and forgets to go back to lock it.
She absentmindedly leaves the door unlocked when she walks in and hears a ringing phone and then ends up on a disturbing phone call.
She locks the door but leaves a window cracked to let the cat in and out.
Someone she trusts comes in behind her and Myrtle thinks the trusted friend has locked the door behind her (and leaves later from a different door), but the trusted friend doesn’t lock it—for whatever reason. Complex and rather messy.
The killer breaks a window quietly by taping it with duct tape and then holding a dishtowel up to the window and striking it with a hammer.
The intruder gets hold of a spare key or somehow copies her key…this will require a good deal more set-up.
The sleuth left it unlocked on purpose and lured the killer there as a trap.   (And she has some sort of back-up—since we don’t need the additional problem of a main character doing something stupid or conveniently reckless.)
In the for-what-it’s-worth department, my editors' views on conveniences tends to be that—as long as I’ve put some effort into setting it up—the readers will suspend their disbelief.  In other words, they absolutely don’t want a moment where the sleuth realizes she forgot to lock the door and that’s the first the readers hear about it—when the intruder has entered her house. They want the readers to see her forgetting to lock the door. 
Is it too much of a coincidence that she’d forget to lock the door on the very night the intruder wants to break in?  Well, it’s definitely a coincidence. Although I’d point out that my husband—incredibly scrupulous about locking doors—left his car unlocked once many years ago while he carried in Christmas presents from a shopping trip.  He forgot to lock it later. And that was the one time in 20 years of marriage that we had something stolen from a car. Coincidences do happen.  I think, though, that it’s a good idea to only have one big coincidence in a story.
More posts on convenience, contrivances, and more:
The Editor’s Blog--Coincidence Destroys the Suspension of Disbelief –by Beth Hill.
The Other Side of the Story--What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents—by Janice Hardy
Beyond the Margins—Managing Coincidence—by Leslie Greffenius
Writers in the Storm--9 Plots That Rely On Coincidence and Contrivance—by Kara Lennox
How do you handle convenience in a plot? How much, as a reader, can you overlook in a story?