…from the mind of my friend, a thinking writer… Author, Charles Hash prods yer scribblers’ brains…
Are things going too smoothly for your characters? Does your plot need a shot of moral complication or dramatic turn? Just keep in mind this one simple little rule: No good deed goes unpunished. This is as useful in fiction as it is true throughout human history.All plots need conflict. This is widely known and accepted. But why stop there? Life is a series of conflicts. The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. We stand, walk and live on uneven and constantly shifting ground throughout our lives.
I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.
As a reader, nothing reaches out and grabs me more than an unforeseen complication, an unintended consequence, a moral dilemma brought about by the good intentions of the characters. As a writer, I find this to be the one thing I struggle with the most. How do I make this even more difficult for my characters without being cliche or trite? Sometimes it is as easy as introducing an element to a genre that has rarely seen it. Others, it is as difficult as bringing something in out of left field that maintains cohesion and makes sense within the story. Sometimes these things just happen.
Robert K Melton listed five possible causes of unanticipated consequences in 1936:
1. Ignorance, making it impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis
2. Errors in analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation
3. Immediate interests overriding long-term interests
4. Basic values which may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
5. Self-defeating prophecy, or, the fear of some consequence which drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is not anticipated
Who isn’t guilty of one or all of these? Overcompensation for #1 often leads to #5. #3 is on daily display by humanity as a whole and by individuals just trying to make it to tomorrow. And #2 and #4 are crutches that many of us use in many forms, from religion to tradition. Learned values and behaviors are often our biggest hindrance in removing the blinders that can lead to all 5 forms of unintended consequences.
Category Error is a powerful tool. Is my enemy really my enemy? All too often our adversaries in the real world are created internally. We give them control and power over us by elevating them to a status within our emotional realm that they don’t deserve, when the real enemy is often within us, whispering things such as, “You aren’t capable” or “You don’t deserve that”. Sometimes it will take a different angle, and tell you that you deserve it all at the cost of everything and everyone around you. We all obsess. We all make mistakes. Our characters should be no different.
The art of Unintended Consequence is to insert it into the story in such a way that the effect is jarring, but natural. Like dropping down the first hill of a roller coaster, or taking off in a jet. Did I really just read that?
It is all to easy to miss the forest for the trees. Are there larger machinations that are at work, even behind the scenes, that the characters are unaware of? Writing is much like chess, in that we must be 5 steps ahead of the characters and plot, and 10 steps ahead of the reader. Where will this lead? What will this cause? What will be the unintended consequences of this? How does it fit into the larger scheme of things? What is the worst case scenario? And how will the protagonist endure it, and how will it change them?
Stubborn characters are quite common. Everyone has one. Sometimes they’re a jerk and you hate them, and sometimes they have a form of rigid personal morality you respect. Often they are the easiest way to insert an Unintended Consequence into your work.
When the Dark and Stormy Night begins, and your hero(ine) allows a stranded motorist into their home to escape the terrible weather, what will the outcome be? Romance or murder? You never know, it could go either way.
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