Convenient storytelling

October 7, 2013

One of my biggest pet peeves is what I call convenient storytelling, which is tricky to explain but easy to see. Let me see if I can do the former.

A character is flipping through a stack of unmarked files, and just happens to pick the one with the information they didn’t know they needed. A protagonist is running through the city, and they just happen to bump into their love interest, even though neither of them has ever given indication of frequenting the area before. As soon as a character is done speaking, the next plot event immediately happens. The character has exactly the right gadget for the job, despite never carrying it before and having no good reason for doing so now. All the characters are secretly related somehow, despite never having had anything to do with one another before the story began.

I recently spoke out against realism, but in truth it’s not all bad. I can accept that sometimes, things truly do just happen, and I’m fine with certain concessions to the pacing or flow. It’s on the small details that it aggravates me, on the file folders and the gadgets and on a million other tiny trivialities.

Convenient storytelling smacks of a writer who knows the entire world is under their control, so they just make certain things happen to smooth the process along. No. No. That’s lazy writing. Its the characters’ story, not the storyteller’s; we just write it down.

While I can’t promise I’ll never fall into this trap – it’s an insidious one, so probably I already have, though I haven’t realized it yet – I do promise to do my best to avoid it. Sometimes you have the right tool, you pick up the right folder, or run into someone where you’ve never met them before. Not usually though.

A good story should be remarkable for greater reasons. Making the little details mundane makes it easier to swallow.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    … Then again, you sometimes do need convenience to counterbalance over-realism. It’s a thin line you have to walk, isn’t it?

    1. Reply


      Undoubtedly true. Some convenience is okay. As I said:

      I can accept that sometimes, things truly do just happen, and I’m fine with certain concessions to the pacing or flow.

      Even sometimes there will be something that is egregiously convenient, and if it’s from a story that has a long history of not making that mistake, I’ll certainly let it slide, though I prefer there to be a good storytelling reason for the slight (pacing and flow, for example). Generally though, I think we can afford a little more realism in the small details and less in the large ones.

      1. Reply


        “I think we can afford a little more realism in the small details and less in the large ones.”

        Maybe it’s because I ultimately watch and read stories for the characters more than anything, but this is especially true for me. I can forgive a multitude of sins in terms of the plot line, as long as I love the characters enough. And characters come to be loved through the small things – a funny quirk, a touching conversation, a moment of being awesome.

        That said, I think that it’s not “convenience” that’s the problem, so much as unexplained convenience. It’s fine if all the characters are related — if they all came looking for their mutual father or were all guided to the same place by their ancestral relics. It’s fine if the hero has just the right tool for the job, if it was given to him by the mole (for either side…), who knows what’s coming and wants to help out in some small way.

        Of course, some explanations just make it worse. There are very few stories that can pull off “It’s Fate” as the reason for the many coincidences, and none of them are stories I enjoy. (This is what I will never forgive Eragon. It wasn’t that great in Wheel of Time either.)

        1. Stilts

          Yes, true, very true! Unexplained (or insufficiently justified) convenience is a great way to put it. And as for fate, I agree – fate can suck it, and it’s a horrible storytelling technique to boot.

          Edit: By the way, your comment encouraged me to finally write a post that has been kicking around for a while – It’s all about the characters. Thought you might like to know. Thanks!

  2. Reply

    Goodwill Wright

    I don’t mind convenience. Like Ana pointed out before, if it can be explained or related, then it isn’t too bad.

  3. Reply

    Nishizawa Mihashi

    Heck, not only conveniences without any reasonable reason or cause, but coincidences that provoke little to no meaningful -i.e. ‘depthless’- reaction and reflection in the minds’ of the characters so to speak. Basically, just like in real life, when coincidences happen, you start to QUESTION just what on earth is going on, or even why it’s happening in the first place, unless there is of course some kind of reason on the characters’ end that makes them not question the coincidence.

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