Contradictions are the stuff of conflict. Contradictions between:
- characters’ words and actions,
- what they say to different people and/or at different times,
- what they do at different times or in different circumstances, or
- the responses of different people 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/unexpected opportunity. Your job as a reviewer is to not only spot the contradictions, but to evaluate them for effect and intent. Sound difficult? It doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to do it.
It’s easy to evaluate contradictions when the contrary words or acts are close together. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. In fact, more often than not, they’ll be pretty far apart. 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 a later article, I’ll discuss how to remember details across large parts of a text or over long periods of time.
So let’s say you’ve spotted one of those kinds of contradictions. What’s next?
The first thing you want to look for is its effect: how it affect 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 you 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.
He can set up the contradiction in a number of ways:
- Circumstances in the character’s life and environment can force a change that leads to the contradiction.
- 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. What was or is his motivation? Could readers see that?
- The character is responding to what another character says or does that she didn’t expect.
- The character’s statement or action is unintentional, based on what he’s said and done before.
If the author set up the contradiction and its effect is clear, that’s great. But if she’s missed on either one, that’s a sign there’s a problem and you as the reviewer need to identify what went wrong.
The bullets above give you the guidance you need to assess the situation—with one caveat. It’s possible the author’s “failure” could be intentional: he might be withholding information from you as a way to increase your tension and 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.
To summarize, then, when you’re evaluating something that a character in a piece has done or said that seems to contradict his earlier statements or behavior, check for the effect the contradiction has on the characters, the story, and you, and look to see if that contradiction was set up beforehand. 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?