Contradictions are the stuff of conflict. Contradictions between
- characters’ words and actions,
- what characters say to different people and/or at different times,
- what characters do at different times or in different circumstances, or
- the responses of different characters to the same stimulus
all increase a reader’s tension and interest in the story.
At least so long as the contradictions are intentional on the author’s part.
If they’re not, that could be a problem. Or an unintended or unexpected opportunity. Your job as a reviewer is to not only spot the contradictions, but to evaluate them for effect, motivation, and intent.
Intentional or Unintentional
The first thing you need to assess is whether the author placed a contradiction in the story intentionally or not. If you’re new to the story or author, this can be difficult, at least until you have a better understanding of the story and the way the author works. But even before that, you can ask yourself whether the contradiction seems to have a purpose. Writers should always put contradictory actions or statements into a piece for a specific reason. They can:
- indicate a change in the character’s situation, beliefs, or intentions;
- be an attempt to deceive or mislead another character;
- show confusion on the part of the character, perhaps due to a declining mental state, being overwhelmed by their situation or how much information is coming their way, or the conflicting demands of other characters or the situation in the story; or
- simply be an unintentional (on the character’s part) misstatement or mistaken action that is going to have consequences later.
Your job is to assess whether the author intended to insert that contradiction or he just made a mistake. The author’s “failure” could be intentional: he might be withholding information to increase your tension and your need to know what happens next. That’s why it’s important to keep reading, as much as possible, to see if that was, in fact, the author’s intent. If you critique what appears to be a mistake too soon, you might have to go back and delete or revise that comment.
OK, so how do you assess a contradiction? It’s relatively easy when the contrary words or acts are close together. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. That’s when this kind of assessment can be difficult, especially if you’re not reading an entire piece at once.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that in chapter three Bob says he respects Alice. He’s impressed with her knowledge and determination. Now supposed Bob and Alice go their separate ways in chapters four to six, but in chapter seven, Bob calls Alice lazy and stupid. That’s a pretty sharp contrast, and if it seems to come out of the blue, you’re likely to remember Bob’s earlier statements and wonder what’s up now. But if Bob’s later comment is diffident, that Alice’s work is okay, will you catch the conflict? You should, but it’s harder to do.
In my article on the reviewer’s mind, I discuss how to remember details across large parts of a text or over long periods of time. You might want to review that article soon.
Let’s say you’ve spotted some kind of contradiction. What’s next?
The first thing to look for is its effect: how it affects the characters involved.
- Does it create new and interesting problems for one or more characters?
- Does it make matters worse for them?
- Do those problems change the direction of the story, especially in interesting and/or unexpected ways? And does the author follow up on that new direction?
Contradictory behavior in a character reveals something about her. This is good. Or at least, it can be.
Next, you want to assess whether the author prepared the reader for the contradiction. It’s important for the author to have set up the behavior before it happens. This is a place where a lot of writers fall down.
The author can set up the contradiction in a number of ways, and any of them can be blatant or subtle. For example:
- Circumstances in the character’s life and environment can force a change that leads to the contradiction. Being forced out of his home by a natural catastrophe is a blatant set-up. A slow build-up of conflict leading to a divorce or separation from his partner could be subtle.
- The character herself might have been evolving due to an accumulation of small changes.
- What the character said or did originally may have been dishonest, misleading, or just incorrect. Or what he’s saying or doing now may be.
- The character is responding to what another character says or does that she didn’t expect.
- The character’s statement or action is unintentional, compared to what he’s said and done before.
A third factor is the character’s motivation for saying or doing something that contradicts what he said or did in the past, even if that past was just seconds ago in story time. You’ll want to assess not only if the reader can see or sense what the motivation is but also if it’s credible, given what you know about the story and the characters.
If the author set up the contradiction, and the character’s motivation for it and its effect are clear, that’s great. But if she’s missed on any one, that’s a sign there’s a problem. You as the reviewer need to identify what went wrong.
Questions for You
Here are some questions you can ask when you’re evaluating something that a character in a piece has done or said that seems to contradict his earlier statements or behavior.
- Did the author place this contradiction with a
- Does it reveal something about a change in the character or her situation?
- Might it be setting up something that will happen later in the story?
- If not, what exactly is the problem and how can the author fix it?
- Does this contradictory statement or behavior change things for the character, those around him, or the overall story? Especially, does it make things worse?
- If the change doesn’t happen right away, do it
and its effects show up at all, or did the author seem to forget that she set
up a change that hasn’t happened?
- If the change hasn’t shown up, why?
- Was the reader prepared for the contradiction?
- If he was, was that good, or was it perhaps telegraphed (he could see it coming)?
- If he wasn’t, was that good? Does it create new interest and tension in the reader?
- Can you see why the character said or did the
contradictory thing? Was her motivation clear?
- If not, why not? Was that intentional on the author’s part?
Well-placed contradictions make stories more interesting and keep the reader engaged. Be sure to compliment the author when they do them well.
What do you look for and what do you consider when you run across a contradiction in a story? It’s no contradiction to say that the best place for your suggestions is in the comments box below.