14: How to Avoid Plot Convenience

What is a plot convenience? Can you identify examples of plot convenience in books and movies? Learn how to avoid plot convenience in your novels.

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Transcript
Kathrese:

Did you grow up on a steady diet of cartoons on Saturday morning? I did. Most of the cartoons I watched are no longer commonly broadcast because I am of a certain age. All cartoons have something in common, though, and that is plot convenience. What is a plot convenience? Why should you avoid it in your fiction? What are some examples from books and movies? This and more on Episode 14 of Writing Pursuits.

Welcome to the Writing Pursuits podcast, where authors like you discuss writing craft, author, life, and book marketing strategies. I'm your host, Kathrese McKee. I own Writing Pursuits, and write and produce the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. In addition, I am a speculative fiction author.

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Watch any cartoon program, any program at all, and you will immediately have to suspend your disbelief to get through it because cartoons are … well … cartoonish. Cartoons are loaded with convenient coincidences.

If Shaggy is trapped in a cave, there is an oh-so-convenient lever to pull down to open a secret door which leads to a grate. Thankfully, he is super skinny and can slip through the bars and enter the swampy water where his faithful dog, Scooby-Doo is balanced on a log that turns out to be an alligator who chases Shaggy until Shaggy conveniently finds a boat dock. He scrambles out of the water, and Scooby-Doo executes a perfect landing on the dock after running across the surface of the swamp, narrowly avoiding the jaws of death.

Those meddling kids. It’s ridiculous. Clownish. Cartoonish. And we are here for it.

The lever in the cave is completely illogical. It shouldn’t exist. Neither should the secret door or the weird grate leading to the swamp. Someone would have had to spend a bunch of money on engineers and a construction crew. But we accept it because it’s part of the cartoon world.

Plot conveniences are not always this obvious, but there are plenty of examples, especially in movies.

Let’s take the movie Independence Day. I enjoyed that movie. It was fun and silly and campy and satisfying but--

Wait, if you haven’t seen it yet, put your fingers in your ears and count to thirty.

are compatible with Earth’s:

On screen, this action only lasted for a few seconds, but the entire plot hinged on that moment. Without the computer virus, the victory wouldn’t have happened. Humans would have become alien food. We wouldn’t be discussing plot convenience.

Welcome back from the spoiler. Oh well, you should probably check out here because there are more spoilers to come. Meet me back here next Wednesday.

Oh, you’re still here?

Another example of plot convenience is the way James Bond’s latest tech gadget always offers the perfect, made-to-order solution to a situation he must overcome. Any episode from this franchise would be incomplete without the go-go gadgets. My favorite, of course, is the Aston Martin with all the cool, extra features. It’s good that I don’t have access to a car with built-in machine guns in the Houston area. Way too tempting.

I think the reasons I have generally liked the last few James Bond movies better than the earlier ones is because Bond is no longer perfect. He is battling the effects of age. He isn’t all that anymore. He is more human. He doesn’t always save the day. Despite it all, he keeps fighting to the bitter end.

Batman comes under the convenient, illogical devices heading too. His little inventions and tools are ridiculous when you think about it, but you are not supposed to think about it. And do not get me started on the plot conveniences included in any meeting between Superman and Batman.

These are obvious examples. If you notice that your plot includes several convenient coincidences in a row, things that might not ordinarily happen following one after the other, then you have stumbled into plot convenience. Go back and ask yourself why you feel compelled to use coincidence so much.

TV shows are rife with plot convenience, and mostly, I think that is okay. It’s supposed to be entertaining, right? But the police dramas are particularly difficult to take because the detectives somehow get across Los Angeles or Chicago in less than five minutes, and they always seem to solve the murder in time to have a beer at the bar with their buddies. What? How? This more or less casts the cops in the role of minor deities, capable of defeating space and time and logic with some sort of super power. A sort of deus ex machina. But we will discuss that in a while.

Let’s talk about plot convenience in books. The Twilight series makes easy pickings, and I bring it up because many of you have read the series or at least seen the movies.

So, Bella is a clutz, forever falling down, tripping, slipping, getting paper cuts, flying off of cliffs and motorcycles, and other death-defying feats. When Bella is transformed into a vampire--finally--she never stumbles again. We can understand that. Vampires should have abnormal grace and precision because they are vampires.

But her new vampire life probably should have just included leaving the clutz life behind. The least she could have done was try to kill at least one person due to the blood thirst. But no. Bella is perfect. She could have been a normal vampire. But no. She became a super vampire with super powers. Only she could save the Cullen vampire family from certain annihilation.

The main point is, it is illogical yet convenient to invest Bella with super vampire powers to get the series to the desired conclusion instead of doing it the hard way.

Okay, okay. Let’s stop picking on Bella.

If you can ever say, “Gee, that was convenient,” then it is probably too convenient, especially since you are writing a story where you are supposed to make things inconvenient for your protagonist.

The same can be said for solutions that are contrived. If you show your character leaving karate lessons where she has been working out for ten years, then you can show her using karate to defend herself against an intruder later in the story. On the other hand, if she beats up a thug and later just says to the police, “Oh, it’s a good thing I’m a black belt,” then it is contrived.

On one hand, your protagonist has worked hard for a skill; on the other, she just so happens to have the perfect skill set for the job. A little too convenient.

What are some signs of plot convenience? More about that after a word from our sponsor.

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So far, we have talked about what plot convenience is and discussed a few examples. Now, let’s talk about warning signs of plot convenience and deus ex machina.

I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, but here are some warning signs of plot convenience:

1. The luckiest character ever. There is a teacher I know who regularly gambles and wins in Louisiana’s casinos. She is the luckiest lady I know. But luck at the slot machines is her claim to fame. Otherwise, her life is perfectly normal with the regular amount of misfortune.

But if your character keeps catching so-called lucky breaks, then you have a convenience problem. Nancy runs into just the right person at just the right time to learn the information she must know to solve the puzzle to find the treasure in a secret basement room of a deserted estate. Right. Or Nancy keeps overhearing conversations to learn the information she needs. Once is okay, but more than that seems kind of rude.

Also, your character cannot be too stupid to live. I hate characters who should have died five times by the end because of their bumbling, stupid choices, but somehow--somehow!--they make it through the entire zombie apocalypse without a scratch. C’mon! Let them die already.

2. The bad guy keeps making mistakes. Much like the last point about the luckiest character ever, an antagonist who makes errors all the time is a convenience problem. You want a villain who is good at what they do. They must be a worthy opponent; there should be times in the plot when things look hopeless for the protagonist because the enemy is so formidable. It’s okay for the villain to have an exploitable weakness, but don’t make it easy for your protagonist. Luke must risk everything to take the shot to destroy the Death Star.

3. Unexpected leaps of intuition. How many times have you read a book where the protagonist suddenly solves the problem without showing their work? For no good reason, they get a hunch or check something on a whim or accidentally turn to the exact page in the computer document or find the incriminating photo in the old, dusty book under the bed. Or maybe someone hands them the exact file from the office archives with all the information they need. This is an extension of the luckiest character ever, but it’s also lazy writing. Make your main character struggle for their results and shows their work.

4. Magical solutions. I know I am going to step on fantasy writers’ toes here, but the magical solution is not the right solution unless:

a. Success is not a sure thing,

b. The magical solution is difficult to achieve,

c. Messing up will have terrible consequences.

d. And maybe, the magical solution will exact a high price.

Don’t make a magical solution easy. Don’t make it convenient. For a better story, make the magical solution difficult and hair raising.

That brings us to deus ex machina.

Literally, “god from the machine.” Deus ex machina is defined as an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.

The term comes from the custom in Greek and Roman plays when a crane would lift an actor who represented a god into the air, making the god appear to the mortals below to resolve their problems. God from the machine. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

These days, it doesn’t look like an actor dangling from a crane. But there are substitutes that are every bit as contrived and convenient.

Recently, I read several books in a newer fantasy series which I will not name. Please don’t dox the author in the comments. It is not my intention to drag the author, but I think this is a good example to illustrate my point.

In one of the books, the main character gets trapped in a dungeon prison. The bad guys are closing in, but out of nowhere--unexpectedly, illogically, and very conveniently--a dragon crashes down on the prison, penetrates the stronghold, and rescues the protagonist. That is deus ex machina. The dragon rescue is a miracle. And as a reader, this plot point took me straight out of the story.

Actually, the main character of the series suffers from chronic plot convenience; she is far too lucky and probably too stupid to live. The main characters in the prequels are far better because they are not so fortunate.

Two science fiction movies, both about Martians, provide excellent examples of deus ex machina.

r of the Worlds, published in:The second example is the:

I really don’t have a problem with the bacteria. As we all know, bacteria can be good or very, very bad. And I am not going to pass judgment on deus ex machina and condemn its use in every situation. Mars Attacks! was a comedy; the movie required a silly, surprise resolution.

What would Ghostbusters be without the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man? True, he wasn’t the miraculous resolution, but he proved to be an easy foe..

However, using a deus ex machina can ruin an ending.

Take Cast Away, the:

But a miraculous rescue would not have been as memorable as Noland’s difficult, risky decision to finally leave the island on a makeshift raft and take his chances at sea. A miraculous ending would not have been as heart wrenching as when Noland was separated from Wilson, his imaginary friend, his last link to the island. Noland’s decision to leave the island made sense after he had been stranded for so long, but it was also a tough choice to make.

Was he rescued by a ship? Yes. Was it a deus ex machina? No, it wasn’t because the character did the hard work of putting himself in the ship’s path. Do you see the difference?

Not every plot convenience is a deus ex machina, but pretty much any deus ex machina is a plot convenience. Avoid plot conveniences when you can, or at least, use them wisely.

Today, we have discussed what plot conveniences are with several examples, we learned about some warning signs writers can watch for in their stories, and we have covered the miraculous, deus ex machina as well.

My question this week is: What is your favorite example of a plot convenience in a book, movie, or TV show? Please share in the comments for Episode 14 at WritingPursuits.com.

If you have questions about writing or need a story diagnostic, please go to WritingPursuits.com and schedule your free, 15-minute consultation. That’s all I have for today. Until next time ...

Thank you for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a comment and follow the podcast. If you're new around here, I hope you will sign up for the weekly newsletter, Writing Pursuits Tips for Authors. That link and all the links mentioned in today's episode are in the show notes at WritingPursuits.com. Please join us on Wednesdays for new episodes and keep writing, my friends. Keep writing.

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