Has this ever happened in your story:
Your character is on a quest to find a missing watch. He spent the last three scenes retracing steps, questioning bystanders and searching high and low. Then he finds himself at home, trying to piece together the clues, when all of a sudden in walks his sister’s best friend’s mom. She’s holding a clue in her hand that will solve everything. She gives it to the him.
Or what about this…
Your Protagonist is chasing her lover to the airport. He’s about to get on a plane and leave forever. She gets to the airport, and what do you know, they just happen to be giving away free tickets. She grabs herself a ticket, the security guard upgrades her to first class so she can get through security faster, and she catches her lover before his plane leaves.
This is a common thing I see in stories all the time.
I call it the “Convenience Factor,” and it’s a big no-no. As one of my clients says, it’s “lazy storytelling.”
What he means by that is, rather than optimizing the story in a way that moves it forward and ties into the plot, the writer uses convenience methods to make things happen: adding a random character in to deliver important information, dropping things in your Protagonist’s lap and not actually forcing him to do any work.
Rather than convenience, spend time planning and developing your story, that way you know exactly what has to happen in the story, and how your Protagonist will be receiving the important information he needs in order to move forward and become the hero. Then you won’t have to do any convenience adding, just to fill space or try to explain something that doesn’t really fit in the story.
Whenever I see Convenience Factor in a manuscript, nine times out of 10 I know the writer did very little, if any, planning before writing the draft. And that’s a huge problem.
Because when you don’t take the time to plan and develop your story—ask questions and consider all possibilities for the direction the story could go in—you’re selling your story short. You’re stopping it from really blossoming into the story it could be.
Convenience Factor is a side effect of pantsing your story instead of planning it out. When you don’t plan, you have no idea what needs to happen to move the story forward. And that’s when you reach for convenience items, like random characters, all-too-coincidental story lines, etc.
Don’t do it.
Don’t waste your time writing a draft like that, a draft full of convenience. Readers don’t want that.
What readers want is a story. A vicarious experience for them to go on with your Protagonist.
They want a Protagonist who’s a bit of a mess, but has the qualities of someone who could be really kick-ass. They want to see things happen to this Protagonist–bad things–in order to find out what he’s made of. And then they want a satisfying ending that resolves everything and has the Protagonist really stepping up and earning his hero title.
Anything less than that isn’t worth their time.
But you can’t create a story like that–a story of that caliber–without doing some developing and planning ahead of time. (Well, you can always write multiple drafts, but you’ll just end up frustrated.)
Do yourself a favor: Give up the Convenience Factor, plan and develop your story, and write a damn good first draft.
Helping emerging novelists write damn good first drafts—that’s what I do. I teach story planning and development, which means creating your Concept and Premise, figuring out the beginning, middle and end of your story, your structure and all of the scenes, before you write a single word.
This ensures a better, stronger first draft every time.
7 Replies to “Is Your Story Suffering From “Convenience Factor?””
Novelist Jonathan Franzen was praised to the skies for his last outing, Freedom. Time Magazine ran a controversial cover with him alongside the phrase “Great American Novelist”. Controversial as in, oh really? In any case, your post about the convenience factor is poignant and, unfortunately, I believe Mr. Franzen uses it disappointingly toward the end of the novel. After Patty and Walter have separated, Walter takes up with his assistant Lalitha. She ultimately is killed in a car accident, which allows Walter and Patty to easily reunite. I never was happy with the writer’s decision to kill Lalitha like that. You create a great complex web of relations when a couple is estranged and one takes up with another lover. Killing off one character, as Franzen did, is an easy way out and means the writer does not have to show his skill by unbundling everyone’s emotions on the pages so that the original couple can reunite. The reason this example in particular leaps to mind, Jennifer, in context of your post is because of Franzen’s so-called literary esteem. I like his writing though I don’t think he’s Great with a capital “G” and I don’t like some of the comments he has made about other writers such as Salman Rushdie who, for example, are on Twitter. But if a writer such as Franzen who is so lauded can fall victim to the convenience factor in his writing, it just goes to show how tempting it can be for skilled writers to “take the easy way out”. Thanks for sharing this post. Joe
@Joe You are SO right! That is a perfect example of an author using Convenience Factor to move their story along. I’ve never read anything by Jonathan Franzen but it sounds to me like he gets away with stuff, kinda like Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks do (not always having true story structure, convenient story lines, etc) because of who they are in the writing world. I think it’s awesome when novice writers refuse to stoop to that level and instead spend extra time figuring out the best and most satisfying way to make something happen in a story.
Hi Jennifer. Read your posts on Storyfix.com and decided to check out your blog.
Joe makes a good point about big-name authors using the “Convenience Method.” Even using it in a way that might potentially be based on life and death and moving on comes across rather cheaply if those things aren’t planted as part of the larger story. Maybe JF believed he could pull it off, convinced himself on some level that it would be totally credible. Sometimes we all justify things so that convenience might blur into reasoning, I suppose.
The thing is, mot writers probably don’t know just how clichéd this type of writing is. I used to collect a lot of old time radio shows from the 40s and 50s. They were great ways of listening to what amounted to a lot of short stories while I was couped up inside my studio as a freelance graphic artist. Some of my favorites were the mysteries. However, all too often the detectives would have a rather happenstance “Aha Moment” when a vital clue would come walking through the door at the last moment, or worse, be inspired by some rediculous statement made by their sidekick. Even the great Sherlock Holmes, known for his amazing deductive abilities, fell victim to this, saying something like, “But of course…thank you Watson!” What did I say, Holmes?” “Why, you’ve just solved the entire case, old friend!”
It is lazy writing. It’s also bad planning. And possibly goes under a piece of advice I once read that a writer shouldn’t write a character who is supposedly miles ahead of them in intellegence. At least not without a lot of research and planning so the character can live up to their reputation. But if you ever have a chance to listen to shows from that era, observe the clichés that were tired before most of us were even born, I think it’ll kind of shame the “Convienience Method” out of a writer before they are tempted to use it. Although why a writer justifies such things in the first place without seeking some honest advice is beyond me. Another piece of advice given to be a wise author was that the best writers always seek help. If your reputation, or ego, gets to the point where it hurts your stories credibility it’s time to come back to earth and find some honest beta readers.
@Robert I totally agree with you! I can’t understand why all writers don’t seek professional support (from a writing coach or editor) before putting their stories out there. I wouldn’t even think of publishing a story without getting help first. I find Convenience Factor happens most often when a writer hasn’t done any planning whatsoever and pantsed the whole story. Because it’s kinda hard to know how things really need to happen in the story when you haven’t taken any time to think about it ahead of time. And that’s when things of convenience show up–random characters with vital information, etc.
Falling back on deus ex machina methods isn’t a side-effect of being a “pantser” – it’s just lazy. People who outline can fall prey to it, too, and people who let their stories develop as they write don’t necessarily do it. Everyone has their own method. Just because something works for you, doesn’t mean it’s the “right” way. While I agree that none of us should be lazy with our storytelling, please try to avoid bashing other people’s methods.
@Elizabeth I’m not at all bashing anyone’s methods. I truly believe and fully support all writers doing what works for them. But in my experiences as a fiction writer and as a coach to writers who want to write novels, there is definitely a correlation between pantsing and Convenienece Factor. I agree that any writer can fall prey to this, including people who plan. But when you plan things out you’re a hell of a lot less likely to be a victim of it because you’re working all the details out ahead of time. So as you’re figuring things out and planning and developing your story, you’re able to work through any convenience or “lazy” methods that come up. It’s a whole lot harder to avoid that when you’re writing without a plan because as you’re writing along you’re just writing whatever comes to you and a lot of times the things that come are Convenienece-based. Again that’s a side effect of pantsing (or not planning enough). Everyone has to choose the best path for them.
I agree that some people pants very well indeed. As a planner, I also agree with Jennifer. As Larry Brooks is fond of saying, either method is a search for a story until it finally comes together.
I believe both methods require a certain type of mindset. For beginners, the advice of most writers I’ve known is to resist the temptation of diving right in and allow the story to develope…either through an outline, or even filling up a notebook with ideas for plot and characters.
My own early attempts at drafting proved to be a huge quest in discovering plot and characters. Every draft I added more. Even though I edited bad scenes and made adjustments, it seemed that each new change brought forth a flood of ideas and possibilities that made my manuscript grow larger and finally turned it into a real mess I became totally disenchanted with.
Of course, my knowledge of craft was in its infant stages. But even later attempts became experiments in over-writing in my attempts to flesh out various aspects of the story.
Now I use a method of plotting with scene cards, giving each a checklist of certain craft-based criteria to ensure I’m writing scenes and not just fragments. That’s another aspect of my pantsing days. I often found partial scenes stitching together two more important scenes. The fragments were only important for getting a character from point A to point B, but had no real conflict or suspense. I’ve known several would-be writers where this became the case as well. What it really boiled down to is the better scenes were those that they had a firm grasp on, planned better–even if it was just a stronger visual in their heads. The weaker scenes and fragments were the parts where they ambled along in search of a way to move the story forward.
Now I work through several drafts of plotting using my cards in the time it would’ve taken me to write a single draft, work out the problems instead of ambling and searching through a year of 2-3 drafts…hoping that’s enough drafting to ensure everything is working on the page.
As a graphic artist, I can tell you that in no art form does a person sit down and rattle off characters like a Disney animator in those special we see on TV. Some can with much practice. And even then, you’re seeing the end result of years of studying everything from anatomy to shading, to perspective….and more craft knowledge than you can imagine. All the while practicing, practicing, practicing…
Why is it that so many folks who want to write believe they can skip the written test and just wow people with their dazzling ideas. Man, if only it were that easy.
That’s my two cents as a writer and an artist who has worked with hundreds of creative people throughout my life. Methods do vary from person to person. Understanding craft, on the other hand, that’s fundamental. Then you can drive whatever car to the party you like 🙂