Vision: A Resource for Writers
Consequences of Your Character's Actions
by Linda Adams
very action your character performs influences something else in the story. Perhaps it's simply that character's next action, or it could be a plot complication, or the arc of the story. Each action can have consequences that ripple through the entire story.
But it's challenging to write with those effects in mind. An action the character performed in Chapter One may influence what she does at the very end of the story as one action leads to another and that leads to another. Just like a lie; the person tells one lie to conceal something. But in order to conceal that lie, they have to tell another, and then another.
However, most books do not take into account these actions and the rich tapestry they provide a story. We've all read a book where a main character kills another person and simply walks away like she hasn't taken a human life. The character doesn't have to wallow in grief, but that action should create other ripples in the story because there are always consequences.
In her book Sing the Light, Louise Marley's character Sira kills another woman in self-defense. Her actions have consequences for her. Though the other characters would understand and forgive her, she cannot forgive herself. That single action sets into motion a plot event that ripples not only throughout that book, but into the two that follow. It ultimately helps her identify how to solve the core problem of the story.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the series by J.K. Rowlings, Harry becomes so outraged with grief that he uses one of the Unforgivable Curses. While it doesn't work properly, that action will undoubtedly have consequences in the sixth book.
There are additional benefits to taking advantage of the consequences of your characters' actions, including unpredictability. Have you ever read a book where you got halfway through and were able to predict the outcome? It isn't that the ending was predictable -- it's that all the events and actions leading up to it were predictable. In particular, formula writing[EBW1] tends to be very predictable. You know the character is going to do this, this, and this, and there's little deviation from it. If you read the First North American Series by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear (People of the Lakes, People of the Mist, etc.), for example, you know that the stories become predictable because the characters' actions are always the same. Using actions and consequences can expand possibilities.
Using the consequences can also help increase the suspense, particularly if you can use it to keep the outcome unknown. In Grave Peril, the third book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, Harry Dresden makes decision after decision that digs him into deeper and deeper trouble. He is in so much trouble that when you near the end you wonder "How is he going to get out of this alive?"
To use consequences in your own writing, think about how you would react if you had to deal with the situation. Think about how your friend or spouse might deal with it. Consider also how other people will react to that action. That is, if your character kills another person, how do the other characters react? Again, there's that ripple effect -- those actions just don't affect a small portion of the story; they affect every aspect of it.
Even if you're not sure where the consequences of an action will go in the remainder of the story, put it in anyway. It will plant a seed in your mind of something that you can work with later on. In our current work in progress, Valley of Bones, my co-writer and I put in numerous actions with possible consequences though we weren't sure what their outcome would be. Nearly every one of them has rippled through to the end of the story and has an impact on the conclusion. Every opportunity we could, we touched on that action and the impact it had on the characters.
No matter how small the action is, if you take the time to use it to your best advantage, your story will have a rich tapestry of characterization and unpredictability. But the biggest benefit of all is that it'll keep your readers turning pages.
Butcher, Jim. Grave Peril (Roc, 2001, ISBN 0451458443).
Gear, Kathleen O'Neal and Gear, W. Michael. People of the Lakes (Forge, 1995, ISBN 0812507479)
Marley, Louise. Sing the Light (Ace Books, 1995, ISBN 0441002722).
Rowlings, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic, 2003, ISBN 043935806X).