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I find myself often being irritated at elements in situations that help characters succeed, elements which are also highly unlikely or even illogical. But often, if not more, I find myself angered by things that too inconvenient. Improbably inconvenient. But am I alone on this? Is it a pedantic irritation or is unlikely inconvenience bad writing?

To be very clear: (a Fantasy setting) If characters are fighting a fight they'll never win, and a never before mentioned/foreshadowed/hinted at dragon swoops down and saves the day, that would be too convenient.

Oppositely, if the characters are winning the fight, but that same dragon swoops down and makes them lose, that would be too inconvenient, at least in my opinion.

Now, if I understand correctly, there are multiple components to this: The dragon hasn't been mentioned, for the dragon to appear is very unlikely and the dragon is irrelevant to what is happening (the fight). I believe there is small differences in inconvenience based on which of these three it suffers from. I'll tackle them in order.

In a book I was reviewing, there is this whole species that is enslaved secretly by some bad people. A resistance freed the species, and chose to hold them in airplane hangars, waiting for whatever, not important. The resistance had not planned ahead enough though, and neither had the author. The main character let's us know that "OH NO! You have all the males in one hangar together? If they are left like that, they kill each other!". Have in mind, this was the second last chapter.

So, this is a problem, and it comes out of nowhere, because it is based on never before mentioned information. To me, it comes off as cheap. Imagine someone is attacking the airstrip, and instead of kill each others, when the males are in the same room, they all give each others superpowers, and are therefore conveniently able to repel the attack. There could be a smart and scientific explanation to this, but it wouldn't matter, because if it hadn't been mentioned before, it would be cheap and too convenient.

Then you have inconveniences that are just very unlikely. Imagine our hero is chasing the villain, and he is close to catching him, and then he is struck by lightening. Too inconvenient. Also, this inconvenience suffers from the last one too, it is irrelevant. Unless the villain has superpowers or is a god, it is completely irrelevant to the story and the conflict in question that the lightening would strike our hero. Now, if there's a thunderstorm, these people are on top of a mountain and they have giant metal poles attached to their heads, then sure, it is a little less unlikely. Perhaps even more likely to happen than not. But relevant?

Though I must admit, I am very unsure in this "theory", as I have witnessed inconvenience and liked it, like in Whiplash, where the main character is hit by a car before attending the concert he was supposed to play at. Though, he was speeding, lowering the unlikeliness, car crashes are a widespread phenomenon, so it doesn't require mentioning, but is it irrelevant? From a narrative perspective, perhaps not?

Anyways, one thing is for certain, if convenience suffers from any of the aforementioned things, then it will not fly. But is it tolerable for inconvenience? My core question is really this:

Is there narrative-wise an inherent difference between convenience and inconvenience, making it so that the same rules don't apply to the latter?

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    "Is it a pedantic irritation (...)?" 'Pedantic' is highly subjective. Some students, for example, find my distaste for the spelling 'thru' and 'gonna' highly pedantic, even in the context of formal academic texts. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Aug 19 at 6:37
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    "it is completely irrelevant to the story and the conflict in question that the lightening would strike our hero." - What do you mean by "irrelevant" here? My understanding is that "irrelevant" means "off topic, not worth mentioning because it is unrelated," but you seem to be using it to mean something like "unlikely." – Tanner Swett Aug 19 at 11:41
  • This inadvertently reminded of the ending in Mass Effect 3 where they had built up a universe with merciless killing AI looming to destroy all life and I kept wondering how it would all come together in the end. Apparently the authors did too and the ending felt like tacked on. I am not an experienced writer, but I'd think that one has figured out the story arc beforehand there is no need for such tropes. – Martin Ueding Aug 19 at 15:00
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    Sometimes things just do come out of nowhere... on the TV/Movies side I recall several cases where the whole "car crash out of nowhere" thing happened (POI comes to mind) and the out of the blue event from "My Girl" really stayed with me. So I think it can work, if you do it right. – Michael Aug 19 at 17:29
  • Famously used: "the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across - which happened to be the Earth - where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog." How inconvenient, but funny! – Keeta Aug 21 at 13:45

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The twin tropes you are referring to are Deus ex Machina and Diabolus es Machina. In both cases an event comes out of nowhere, not foreshadowed, to effect a drastic change.

Both tropes are frowned upon. For example, Marion Dane Bauer in her book on writing, would say to her writing students "If you end your story by having your main character get hit by a truck, you have just flunked." (taken from the above tvtropes link, didn't find original source)

There is a little more leeway with inconvenience than with convenience: an additional challenge for the characters to face is more interesting than the challenge getting solved all by itself. Nonetheless, "things going wrong" would usually take the shape of "everything that could go wrong, goes wrong" - things that are plausible within the story. (On the flip side, if everything goes according to the best-case scenario, it's a bit underwhelming.) A problem that comes out of left field, particularly in the last part of the novel - it's not a good thing.

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    I use a term I call the "Inverse Chekhov's Gun Rule". The original rule of course is that "If you show a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third". The inverse is basically "If a gun goes off in the third act, it must have been shown in the first." It's not Deus/Diabolus ex Machina if you've set it up properly beforehand. The trick is to do the setup in a way that's not super-obvious, but still avoid things just coming out of nowhere. – Darrel Hoffman Aug 19 at 14:20
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    It seems overbroad to me to say that these tropes are frowned upon. For example, they can be used for comedic effect (see Monty Python's Life of Brian, where a man falling off a tower is randomly saved by an alien spaceship that just happens to be flying by). – JakeRobb Aug 19 at 17:06
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    @DarrelHoffman I'll disagree that it doesn't qualify if you've set it up properly beforehand. In Jurassic Park, when the protagonists are just about to be eaten by velociraptors, the T-Rex comes in and saves the day. T-Rex was introduced much earlier, but IMO this absolutely qualifies as Deus ex Machina. I'd revise to say that it's frowned upon if you haven't set it up beforehand and are not using it for obvious comedic effect, as in the Life of Brian scenario. – JakeRobb Aug 19 at 17:09
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    @JakeRobb Which Life of Brian scenario are you referring to? If it's the suicide squad that appears at the end to seemingly save Brian and then just kill themselves, it turns out this was set up before, but in a deleted scene. (It's on the DVD.) As for Jurassic Park, that was set up, but maybe not "properly" I guess. Still better than the Eagles in Return of the King which were hardly mentioned at all. Yes, an Eagle appeared in a Gandalf flashback, but still kind of out of nowhere. – Darrel Hoffman Aug 19 at 17:15
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    @JakeRobb I say very often that "rules" in writing are more what you'd call "guidelines". Monty Python were indeed very good at breaking "rules" for comedic effect. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 19 at 17:18
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I would say anything that seems to come out of nowhere is unrealistic fiction, unless the fact that it comes out of nowhere is fairly concealed.

For example, I can make my protagonist's father a college professor, and her mother an MBA business manager, and because of that she knows some stuff critical to the plot about both academia and business that the average person would not know.

Now, her knowledge is justified, but in the story, her parent's professions were not justified; she was just born with the parents she has. But if I write it correctly and early readers won't care how convenient her parent's professions were.

On the flip side, in The Hunger Games (movie), Mrs. Everdeen is in a deep depression, and this is the reason Katniss becomes the stand-in mother and provider for her 12 year old sister, Prim, and it is in this role that Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place in The Hunger Games. The entire plot hinges on Mrs. Everdeen's unexplained and inconvenient depression, or at least Katniss's love for her little sister. (In the book the depression is caused by the death of their father in an inconvenient mining accident.)

In short, I want to say that everything can be traced to some good luck or bad luck in our character's lives, so we don't have to go too deep in order to hide that, and make the luck once or twice removed.

If I really want a victory to be upended by a dragon my heroes did not expect, it is easy enough to plant the seeds for that as early in the book as I like. At the beginning of the quest, they stole something from the dragon in order to begin their quest. Or they were (randomly) attacked by a juvenile blue dragon, and killed it -- the child of a much larger blue dragon that has been seeking revenge ever since.

Plots demand both successes and failures. Both of those should be justifiable, and the more important the success or failure, the more "layers" of justification should be used to disguise the fact that in the end, it was luck.

The luck of being in the right place at the right time, the luck of being born with the right skill or to the right parents, the luck of searching for the right thing instead of the wrong thing, the luck of random decisions working out. Or the bad luck of any reversals of the above, and perhaps the character's responses to such hardships, which turn the hardships into advantages: Katniss Everdeen, again, becomes an expert huntress and markswoman because of her mother's disability and the need to step up and provide for her baby sister; and the inconvenient illness of her mother conveniently gives Katniss exactly the expert skill she needs to survive the Games. (Not to mention it is very convenient that the one enemy killed by Tracker Jacker wasps is the one with the bow and arrows, something entirely unplanned by Katniss).

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    To further the example, it's also improbably inconvenient that Katniss's sister is the one selected to go to the Games (literally "winning" a lottery with low odds) – Kai Aug 19 at 5:11
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    @Kai I am not convinced. It was certain that some family would "win" the lottery, and Hunger Games is the tale of that family, a family that happened to be the Evergreens. – gmatht Aug 19 at 7:29
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    I think it also has a lot to do with foreshadowing. If the first time the parent's profession comes up is when those skills are relevant it's a Deus ex Machina. If the book shows the parents before in a natural manner telling the hero about their work it's good writing. – xLeitix Aug 19 at 13:03
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    @gmatht - I believe the family was the Everdeens, not a grove of Christmas trees. – Michael Karas Aug 19 at 13:40
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    @Kai That is true, but I don't think it "counts" toward Deus Ex. Readers expect us to focus on an MC that will be extraordinary, or experience the extraordinary. Harry Potter, 007, Houdini, Gates, Superman. But they also want fair limits on the extraordinary; the MC must work and sacrifice for the win. Deus Ex and Diabolus Ex violate their expectations. Beginning with an unlikely person, setting, event, or circumstances does not. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 19 at 16:28
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I would fall back on Sanderson's First Law of Magicks

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Magic, of course, has similar writing properties as convenience might. I think the key wording is "ability to solve conflict." It doesn't matter who wins in the conflict, its the fact that it is solved which causes the issue.

Consider the difference between a dragon that suddenly swoops down and resolves the fight between the hero and villain, and a dragon which comes down, ruins all of the potential resolutions available, perhaps steals a princess before returning to their lair, leaving both hero and villain scratching their heads about what to do. Now the conflict hasn't been resolved, but rather a whole new aspect of the world has been exposed.

Of course, such a move does resolve some conflict, so it is up to the author to convince the reader that it's a good trade -- the conflict they knew and were comfortable with, traded away for this shiny new unknown conflict!

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"Too convenient" and "too inconvenient" may be polar opposites for the characters but they are both symptoms of the same problem in the writing. The author is relying on coincidence to solve writing problems. Getting the protagonists out of a difficulty is a writing problem. But getting them into a difficulty is also a writing problem.

@CortAmmon referenced Sanderson's Law, which can be paraphrased as "the more that magic solves problems for the characters, the better thought out and justified it must be," and generalized as "the more that any plot device solves problems for the characters, the better thought out and justified it must be." However, plot devices that solve writer's problems can also come across as cheap and undermotivated, even if they aren't solving the character's problems. A good example is the 7th book in the Harry Potter series. What at first seems like improbably bad coincidences --the heroes are continually discovered by the villains --are revealed to be the result of a plausible and well-prepared plot device:

The protagonists are unintentionally signalling their location to the villain each time they say his name. This is foreshadowed several books in advance by the hero's insistence on breaking a taboo honored by most of the other characters in the book --a eccentricity that can directly be traced back to advice from his trusted mentor.

It's okay to have a bit of coincidence in a book --we all experience coincidences in real life, as well as lucky or unlucky breaks. Too much of it, however, betrays a lazy writer. We don't expect our books to match reality --particularly fantasy books --but we do expect them to mirror reality. In other words, we want to learn something about facing the challenges of life from fictional narratives. Therefore, even in a fantasy narrative, we want the challenges the characters face to be a similar mixture of result-of-choices and outside-circumstances --with just a sprinkling of coincidence --to what we encounter in real life.

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Oppositely, if the characters are winning the fight, but that same dragon swoops down and makes them lose, that would be too inconvenient, at least in my opinion.

It depends where in the story you are. If you're in the climax, yes it is bad writing.

But if this fight happens in the early exposition stage of the story, where the purpose of the scene is to introduce the existence of the dragon, it's not bad writing.

Surprises happen, and are often a source of plot (e.g. the otherwise experienced hero encounters a new hurdle to cross), but the climax of the story should only use known or established components in order to feel like an actual climax to the story.

Take the example of Lord of the Rings, how Frodo and Sam are rescued by the giant eagles in the end. If Gandalf had not previously been rescued by an eagle, the eagles would have been a bad resolution to the story as they would have been a lampshaded deus ex machina.
As it currently stands, the eagle resolution is still questioned by some fans, but it does tick the boxes for good (or at least not bad) writing: they were introduced in an earlier scene, and they weren't a plot hole (they couldn't fly in on the eagles because they would've been shot down by Sauron).

Then you have inconveniences that are just very unlikely. Imagine our hero is chasing the villain, and he is close to catching him, and then he is struck by lightening.

If lightning does not otherwise factor into the story, it's an unsatisfying resolution to the scene. If however it is e.g. used to then explain that on this planet you cannot wear metal armor for exactly that reason; then it's reasonable exposition.

Is there narrative-wise an inherent difference between convenience and inconvenience, making it so that the same rules don't apply to the latter?

The exact same good/bad writing argument can be made for lightning hitting the hero or the villain. Good writing isn't about who benefits from the ex machina; but rather about the existence/overreliance on an ex machina.

Though I must admit, I am very unsure in this "theory", as I have witnessed inconvenience and liked it, like in Whiplash, where the main character is hit by a car before attending the concert he was supposed to play at.

In this case, serendipity (or bad luck) is part of the story setting, which makes this a fitting case of exposition/theme building. Some stories very much focus on life being an unpredictable sequence of events where there is clear causality but it's mostly impossible to accurately predict it.

If everyone suffers from the same unpredictability (both positive and negative), then it's not bad writing and it is simply a matter of theme/setting.

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For whom have my hands laboured, Urshanabi?

Both temporary setbacks and unexpected failures in the end are entirely appropriate.

Unexpectedly unhappy endings are as old as civilization. The best ending for the characters and the best ending for an acclaimed book are often different. This is normal. It is a hallmark of the writer's craft to make the reader feel sad for the characters in-universe but at the same time feel happy about having read the book.

Temporary setbacks are mandatory: they are the building blocks of the story.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

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Inconvenience is more realistic and hence more relatable. Think of Donald Duck cartoons--everything seems to go wrong, all the time. Many people resonate with that, although in this case exaggeration might make it more humourous. (It might be even more humourous if no exaggeration is required!)

Too inconvenient is simply the admission of the existence of a powerful adversary, which is a key to an interesting plot.

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How much pain is too much? This is a highly subjective question where people will not agree.

The problems you describe are painful, but are they too painful? Again, this is highly subjective.

The pain comes from breaking the readers expectations. When readers are getting near the end of a story, they expect to understand the world and the conflict. Having the conflict resolved in a way completely unrelated to the rest of the story is an insult to the readers and many will react like you do.

But does that mean the story shouldn't have been published? Well, that is a matter between the editor and the marketing department.

As an author, you should definitely try to avoid this. Foreshadowing is the primary tool in this respect. In the beginning of the story the readers will be open to learning new things about the world. Use that to introduce everything that will eventually become important.

The nice thing about being an author is that you can write the beginning after you write the end. When you discover that a dragon is needed in the final chapter, you can go back and add it to the opening.

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The art of the twist is not given to every writer. Many weak writers think of the swooping dragon as a surprise twist, but their readers don't see it that way.

Twists are successful when the reader is taken entirely by surprise, but then tells himself "of course, I should've seen that coming!" - but he didn't.

They are failures when the reader is taken by surprise and then goes back through the pages (real or in his memory) to figure out what he must have missed because it just can't be that there's suddenly a dragon and nobody ever mentioned it. And sure, he'll find some nameless, unimportant character casually mentioning the existence of dragons in general in a throwaway remark somewhere buried in a sideplot.

So your countermeasure as a writer is mastering the art of foreshadowing. The countless hours of Game of Thrones fan commentary are great examples of that. The foreshadowing was done obvious enough that people understood that something was coming, but everyone had different ideas about what it would be.

So properly done, your dragon would not suddenly appear. But there could be omens that something would happen. Omens that the final decision would be out of the hands of the hero despite his struggles. Or prophecies that a long gone danger would rear its head once more and sweep away the darkness. There could be events throughout the story that only in hindsight are clearly seen as a dragon awakening. And so on.

And yes, to answer your initial question, there is such a thing as "too inconvenient" and it's rampant in movies. In fact, many comedies are based on just this idea, when the events that stop the heroes from the actually very simple thing they want to do go from bad luck to unbelievable to outright silly.

  • A side remark: The suddenly out-of-nowhere appearance of a dragon would make a great beginning of a story. Start with the seemingly epic final battle between the hero and the villain. Readers will expect that you jump back in time and then tell the story that led up to the battle. Instead, let the dragon appear, eat the villain (or the hero, or both, your choice) and go "what the heck? dragons?" and then start the real story, which is about the dragon and not the hero or the villain. – Tom Aug 20 at 13:18
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I read an article by a writer once in which he said that he spent a great deal of his time putting doors in alleys. And he explained that what he meant was, if he has a scene where the hero is being chased by the villain and the hero runs into an alley and there's a convenient door that the hero can jump through and lock behind him, the reader is going to be disappointed at this easy and convenient escape. But if early in the story the hero is in this alley and sees the door, and then 3 chapters later he ducks into this alley and escapes, it's fair and satisfying to the reader.

In general, for a story to be plausible and interesting, anything that helps or hurts the hero must be:

(a) Adequately foreshadowed. It can't just come out of nowhere and save or defeat the hero. There had to be some clue earlier in the story that this was coming. Having a dragon suddenly swoop in and save the hero is fine if 5 chapters earlier the hero met this dragon and befriended it. But if there's been no mention of this dragon before, he just comes out of nowhere, yeah, that's a problem. As someone else on here said, you can have things "come out of nowhere" early in the story. You have to introduce new elements some time. But even at that I'd avoid having something come out of nowhere to save the hero. They should come out of nowhere for a casual encounter with the hoer.

(b) Consistent with the setting and genre of the story. If you tell me that the knight in your fantasy novel finds a magic belt that will transport him anywhere in the world in the world in an instant, I'll probably accept it. If you tell me that the detective in a grittily realistic crime story finds a magic belt that will transport him anywhere in the world in an instant ... I'm going to have a problem with this. Yeah, sometimes introducing a sudden genre twist can be interesting, like if what seemed like a realistic crime story suddenly turns into a vampire story or some such. But it's risky. You have to do it well.

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