Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cliched Contrivances

Gimmicks, Machinations, Contrivances...

While every narrative, every work requires a series of contrived events to propagate a story and develop the plot into a designated direction, there are certain contrivances that have not only fallen into cliche but can also serve to sever the connection between the audience and the work.

These contrivances are prominently a single element on which the entire subject of a piece can hinge. While these elements have been overused to the point of absurdity by popular media, they still find their way into narratives and while these elements can have their place in a piece their implementation is often the largest failing. This comes from a lack of research and more reliance on what has be exemplified by the media when using these elements.

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The most gimmicky of these elements are the almighty whatsit, the walking encyclopedia and the psychological excuse.

The Almighty Whatsit takes two forms; the first is the whatsit that causes the story, while the second form is the whatsit that resolves the story. In the first form this can be a device that could save, destroy or alter the world, a miracle cure or artifact of some form. In Urban Fantasy this is often the lynch-pin of the story, someone is in pursuit of a magical relic that can give them unbelievable power to do very bad things. The second form usually is added to resolve the story when things are at their bleakest for the characters. This form can be anything that the first form can be. In both instances the almighty whatsit is something wholly unique and world shattering, while at the same time it's the implementation of this that breaks the audience-work connection.

The Walking Encyclopedia is often the solution resource for the main characters. When they are striving to accomplish something and need knowledge that will ultimately lead to the resolution of the piece the characters happen across the Walking Encyclopedia. This element often comes as the explanation or info-dump piece of the plot. The Walking Encyclopedia knows exactly what to do and is ancillary to the main characters either uninterested in the outcome or is secretly supporting the antagonist. The implementation of the Walking Encyclopedia is usually the by-product of foreshortening a piece. This can easily be rectified into something believable by reducing the information provided by any one character.

The Psychological Excuse is one of the most overused elements in any medium. This can be utilized to explain the behavior of characters, the motivation for the antagonist and even the core element of a piece.  This element is often a trauma of some form either physiological or psychological. Why does the antagonist hate the protagonist? They were abused as a child. The character needs to be captured to explore some exposition. The character is hit on the head and knocked-out, drugged or otherwise incapacitated. The character needs to explore their life, uncover a mystery etc. They have amnesia, multiple-personality disorder and so forth. The Psychological Excuse requires quite a bit more research than relying on traditional tropes. If someone is traumatized there are strong psychological and physiological effects that are often repressed or subconscious. If someone is knocked-out or drugged into incapacitation there are very dramatic side-effects ranging from brain lesions to sever vomiting and more.

Every Narrative relies on certain tropes to progress and develop the story but quite frequently these contrivances fall into cliched and gimmicky territory that breaks the spell for the audience. Popular media has explored these tropes extensively to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes it's best to recognize the cliche if only to avoid it.

Do you have any contrivances in your work? How do you avoid these cliches?



Michele Shaw said...

WOW! One of my favorite posts to date, Phil. I've never seen it explained this way, but so very true! Hmm, my work? I'm sure I'm not immune to it, but I'd have to think on it. Hopefully, if I've used any it is in a unique way and presented well, but I really want to stay away from anything that makes a reader groan and say,"Oh, no! Not again!" Thanks

Jami Gold said...

Michele is right - this is a *great* post. :) I struggle with some of these more than others.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...the hero of my latest novel saw his lover die four years before the book starts. His recovery from this shock and grief underlies much of what happens. Is this a case of your #3 or not?

Ron Leighton said...

I think this is a great post. Very useful and necessary. Actually, in my novel (editing still in progress), the character that might seem to qualify as both the Almighty whatsit AND the Walking Encyclopedia is a magician whose magic proves useless at a key moment! The matter is instead resolved via sweat, blood and human ingenuity. :) But all these cliches are something to watch out for, certainly.

Jill Kemerer said...

Excellent breakdown!! As a reader, I don't like for things to be wrapped up too tidily the way you mentioned in the human encyclopedia. I like to watch the protagonist put things together and actively search for the needed information.

I've never thought of these problems in this way--thanks for clarifying!!

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, thanks for the compliments. Very true how many times have you picked up a book or even switched on a TV show to find another variant of those themes? Most do not reflect well and do make the audience groan.

Jami, I think every writer struggles with this at some point. You've been conditioned to think a certain way about things but a little non-media insight can go a long way. Like the hit on the head and knocked out bit. How many times have you read that? Did you know that the physiological effects of that include disorientation, loss of equilibrium and hearing, vomiting even lesions and hemorrhaging that can lead to death? Not to mention that any blow that violent is also very likely to fracture the skull. Now, how often do you see these effects used in a story? There are some nifty solutions for these cliches so long as you can recognize them.

AG, I do something similar but in truth it is a bit of cliche on both of our accounts to use that sort of trauma. The case in #3 is actually the amnesia, the shock or abuse style traumas that are used as an explanation without showing the effects of these psychological conditions. To avoid a cliche it's easy, show the effects of the traumas not just have it as an explanation.

Ron, thanks for the comment. Ha that really sounds like a cliche wrapped in a contrivance with a nice twist away from the cliche. So long as we are aware of the cliche we can take them a twist them away into something useful.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As I am starting a new novel - a psychological suspense - this will come in handy, to seek out the cliches in order to break them down and do the unexpected instead.

PW.Creighton said...

Donna, thanks for stopping by and that's what I hope to propagate myself. ;-)

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