written by John Wiswell
Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.
You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch.
The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in.
A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?
The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.
Then the contrivances hit.
Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip.
Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?
The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.
Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad.
The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.
Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.
Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car.
Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.
The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward.
Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get.
That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma.
You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.
Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.
Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend.
She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.
Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back.
The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.
This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.
It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.
Then we find out why.
Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.
So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP.
Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.
Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.
The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.
Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.
This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining. This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.
What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.
It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.
Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…
Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.
From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window.
Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.
John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.