Just Too Convenient...
by Marg McAlister
Last year, I critiqued several scenes in one week for a writer. In two of them, she'd made life much too easy
for her characters. In the first scene, complete strangers offered the children shelter and food. In the second,
one of them needed to hide... and lo and behold, there was a convenient tree to duck behind. In both cases, I
highlighted the relevant sections and made a note: "Too convenient!"
The writer wrote back. "What's this about 'convenience'?" she wanted to know. "I've read through the course
materials - and there's nothing there about it. How do I know what to look for?"
Hmmmm. I could see her point. She wasn't the only one running into trouble because of the same thing. I'd had to
make the same comment on a number of manuscripts. I immediately decided to make this the subject of an article one
That day has now come. It's time to share a few tips on how to make life a little more INconvenient for your
characters! We'll look at four main areas of 'convenience'.
1. CONVENIENT KNOWLEDGE OR SKILLS.
I've lost count of the number of times a character has conveniently "remembered" how to build a raft, or how to
hack into a website, or how to cook a damper. Or maybe they've suddenly developed an amazing aptitude to step into
the CEO's job and run a major corporation (after never having done anything like it before). Usually, the author
passes it off by writing something like this: "He looked at the fast-flowing stream and knew that he'd have trouble
swimming across. Thank goodness he still had Brian's tomahawk in his backpack. And it was a good thing that he'd
watched that TV program last week about how to build a raft..."
Oh, honestly. What reader is going to swallow that? A convenient tomahawk? And a convenient how-to-build-a-raft
TV show, the week before he needs it? Not a chance!
If you want your character to have a certain piece of knowledge or certain skills, then you have to set this up
well ahead of the scene where he needs it. If he's going to have to execute a swift kick to the chin to disable one
of the bad guys, then show him doggedly sticking to his kick-boxing classes even though he's nowhere near the best.
Or show him coming home triumphantly bearing a second place trophy for karate. (First prize might be a bit
The same applies to expert knowledge of computers, horses, cars, planes, cooking, business management... you
name it. It is NOT good enough to have your character 'remember' that he's read a book about it or seen it on TV.
(Unless you show him trying to put these dim memories into practice and failing miserably. THEN it's okay.)
2. CONVENIENT HIDING PLACES OR SHELTER.
If your character seems to be in danger of being caught, it's very tempting to have her duck behind a tree,
squat behind a rock, or step into a cupboard. (It's not so easy to slide under a bed these days - not when the box
spring base is two inches off the floor.)
NO! Before you allow that to happen, think again.
What if there is NO convenient tree? What if she's in the middle of an open area of ground? What could she do
THEN to hide? (This is going to make your story so much more interesting.)
If you're sitting there thinking that you HAVE to put in a tree, because otherwise she's simply going to get
caught... well, why not? What would it do to your story if she did get caught? Probably make things a whole lot
more dire for your character - and that's usually good. That's what keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
Be creative. If there's nowhere convenient to hide, then your character has to think quickly. She has to be
smarter. (So do you, the author, when it comes to that.) And if your character should need shelter, please don't
let her stumble across a convenient tumble-down shack or have a friendly local offer her a bed in the hayshed.
Instead, let her huddle under a tree with water dripping down her neck all night, not sleep a wink and then greet
the day with a sore throat. That's SO much more satisfying.
3. CONVENIENT CONTACTS.
Your character needs to know how to crack a safe. Oh, wow, he thinks, Mary's brother spent two years in prison
for robbery. He used to break into safes. I'll give him call. Naturally Mary's brother is home waiting for the
call, and naturally he has just the knowledge that your character wants. (And is quite happy to pass it on - or
help out.) Boring, boring, boring.
Make your character work for what he needs! If he DOES know someone (or know someone who knows someone who knows
someone) then don't make it easy for him to get the information. Have the other person unavailable for four hours,
or four days. Or perhaps (in the case of Mary's brother) he's helped out other felons once too often and he's back
Alternatively, your character's contact could be unwilling to help. Your character has to jump through hoops.
Okay, once in a while he can have a lucky break - but mostly, he should have to fight for what he needs.
Nothing should be easy. (How many times have you sighed, saying "If only I knew someone who... [fill in the
blanks]" only to give up and find a way around it? That's real life. Your books should reflect the obstacles we
face in real life.)
4. CONVENIENT GADGETS/TOOLS/EQUIPMENT.
Hark back to the tomahawk I mentioned in the first point. Not only did the character know how to build a raft,
he just happened to have a tomahawk with him to do the job. This is where your reader starts rolling eyes
heavenwards and starts muttering "Oh, how convenient..."
Your character wants a pen? Yep, there's one in her pocket. Oh, and there's a scrap of paper there too. Phew,
lucky! Your hero needs a rope? Well, isn't it fortunate there's one in the car. He needs a car? Gosh, someone's
carelessly left the keys in one while they ducked into the store...
You can see the pattern here. Some authors treat their characters like spoilt children. Anything they need is
instantly provided, whether they deserve it or not. Don't spoil YOUR characters. They need tough love. In order to
grow and change, they need to work through their problems. They have to find inner strength to overcome obstacles,
find what they need, or come up with an alternative if they can't have it.
As an author, you'll have to work harder, too - but it will be worth it. For a start, none of your readers will
be muttering "Oh, how CONVENIENT!" when your characters want something... because you won't let them have it.
© Marg McAlister