Posted by: nancycurteman | January 20, 2015

Contrived Writing in Mystery Novels

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KillerIdeasForSafeTravelA common criticism mystery writers hear from editors is that some scenes in their novels seem contrived. What does “contrived writing” mean? What does it look like in a writing piece? What can authors do to prevent it?

Simply put, contrived writing means something happens in a story that has no realistic connection to anything in previous scenes in the novel. In other words, a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by an unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. A story is contrived if its plot has twists and turns that aren’t properly set up.

Here are some examples of contrived writing editors find in mystery novels:

  • A woman is kidnapped and locked up in an isolated cabin. A detective breaks down the door and rescues her. No explanation of how he found out where the kidnapper had hidden her.
  • A killer chases a mild-mannered bookkeeper through a quiet neighborhood. Suddenly the bookkeeper stumbles on a gun lying in the street. He grabs it and shoots his pursuer. No explanation of the origin of the gun or whether the bookkeeper knew how to handle it.
  • On a clear day, a vicious dog is about to attack a kid. Suddenly lightning strikes the dog and saves the kid. What?

Stories are contrived when the plot is too external– when it feels too much like the author is manipulating her characters and events to make the plot turn out the way she wants.

Mystery writers can avoid contrived writing by laying the foundation for events that are to come (foreshadowing) so they don’t appear to come out of nowhere. Don’t just plop a character in a specific place to advance the plot. To make a story ring true, take the time to create authentic characters and be sure that all their actions are authentic. Make sure it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out.

Authors can avoid contrived writing in a mystery novel by asking two questions: “Would this character really say or do this?” “Would this really happen the way I’ve written it?”

More Tips:
How to Write “Killer” Scenes in a Mystery Novel
How to Write Gripping Mystery Novel Scenes


  1. Good tips, NT.

    I’m happy to suspend belief in certain settings (e.g., shifting stairs and flying broomsticks at Hogwarts), but I lose interest if a character acts in ways that are “out of character” given how they’ve been painted on previous pages.


    • Good points, Nancy. Some stories work well with unexplained phenomena. Again, you’re right—the character is the key.


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