I’ve been hosting a writing workshop recently where we talk about ways to improve writing technique. While I have a lot of fun teaching this class, there are always topics that get away – There are only so many hours in a day, you know?
With that in mind, I’d like to take the time to reinforce a short, seemingly simple lesson: Good writing has consequences, or rather, good writing has the sense of consequence. Let’s dive in:
What is Consequence?
Merriam-Webster defines consequence as “something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions” or, and I love this definition much more when it comes to writing: “a conclusion derived through logic.”
When you’re writing, especially when you’re writing unrealistic fiction, there can be a belief that you can do whatever you want. On one level, this is true. If I want to write a fantasy full of dragons that shoot out goats instead of fire whenever they get angry, no one can stop me. However, I have just created a rule for myself. If, at some point in the story, I have a dragon suddenly breathe fire (like a traditionalist), I cannot expect my reader to not be confused.
In my world, I made a rule: dragons breathe goats, not fire. I have just suddenly broken that rule for – reasons? Sure, I can explain it away (this is a rare breed of dragon) or (someone lit the goats inside this dragon on fire and we’re seeing the grizzly result) but I must do something. I cannot just break the rules, even the fantastical rules, of my universe without reprisal or explanation and if I break the rules too much – even if each time is perfectly explained away – they start to lose their meaning.
This is what consequence in writing is. You have rules, you must follow them – even when you don’t want to. Author and Watchmen creator Alan Moore has stated that he originally did not plan to kill Rorschach at the end of the Watchmen graphic novel. The decision was revealed to him when he realized he had written a character who refused to compromise, even in the face of certain oblivion. So, when it came time for such a moment to occur – Moore embraced it, rather than writing a quick (and cheap) caveat to explain Rorschach’s sudden change of personality.
Another way to think of writing consequences is to consider speeding. If you speed, you get pulled over. Depending on the severity of your crime, you get a warning, a ticket, or (in extreme circumstances) an arrest – which may result in a loss of license, among other things. Okay, now imagine it was always a warning:
“Do you know how fast you were going in this 25 zone?”
“Uh, about 130.”
“Okay, just don’t let it happen again.”
At some point, you’d question why the cop pulled you over at all, if that was always going to be all that happened as a result.
When There are No Consequences
A failure to write consequences typically results in two things: sequences (or arcs) without a real payoff or, a world where this no real meaning to any action. Let’s look at examples of each of these, starting with the former. Since I’ve been on a Star Wars kick recently, let’s use a Star Wars example from Rogue One.
A Scene Without a Payoff
Now, I like Rogue One a lot, but it has a rough beginning. There is perhaps no better example of just how rough his opening act is than the sequence involving a creature called the Bor Gullet:
Okay, so to give more context: A defecting imperial agent goes to an especially militant faction of the rebellion with vital information. The leader of this faction – Saw Gerrera – is weary of the pilot, however, and does not believe him. Instead, he subjects him to a creature called the Bor Gullet (shown above). Now this alien monster can learn the truth by reading the pilot’s mind, but with the side effect that the pilot will go completely mad during the process.
Okay, so you got that. So, how would you expect the sequence to play out? Would you expect the pilot to in fact go mad and for Saw to be convinced he was telling the truth? You would, right? After all, that’s what the story essentially just told you would happen.
But it doesn’t.
Saw still doesn’t believe the message is genuine, and the pilot regains his memory and sanity at very (and I mean very) slight prodding from another character. In other words: Nothing meaningful happens. You would have reached the same result without Bor Gullet being in the story at all. (Quick note, Rise of Skywalker is unfortunately full of moments like these – I won’t say spoilers, but I will say Chewbacca and C-3PO, among others).
Too many instances like this can drag a story down by making it feel dull or bloated. There’s no reason to have Bor Gullet other than to show off a cool looking alien. Action films will do this a lot – having tons of explosions…but very little happening because of them. Really, a sequence where your characters drive down the street is always just that, regardless of how much property damage you have them cause along the way.
So, how do you avoid it? Pretty easily in fact – just have a payoff. If Saw had freed the pilot, allowing him to wander off into the desert, the sequence would have helped move the plot along. Every scene in your story, especially every scene dependent on plot and not character, should advance your story in some way. Heck, the best writers find ways to weave in meaningful plot moments into introspective character exchanges as well.
If you’re editing your story and say “I can lose this and nothing will change” well congratulations, you’ve found a scene without consequence.
A World without Meaning
The featured image of this article is from the television adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, known far more commonly as Game of Thrones. And it shows a moment of true consequence. A main character (arguably the main character) is killed off because he trusted the wrong person. Wow. Don’t see that happen often in stories – but it makes sense. It is a logical conclusion to the events we read (or see) play out.
By the end, however, Game of Thrones was out of books to adapt and looking to end itself quickly. The result? A world without meaning. Just look at this map comparing the travel distances of two characters during what is supposed to be roughly the same time period:
For the record, the show depends on tension created by the movement of the White Walkers, tension that is completely undercut by the fact that every other major character in the show is roughly thousands of times faster than they are.
But this problem occurs more than once. There are numerous sequences of destruction and devastation where main characters escape completely unscathed. In a story that opens with “trusting the wrong person can kill you,” it feels nothing short of insane to say “you’re outnumbered and unarmed in a courtyard full of the living dead…but you’re a named character so you’re fine.”
I could (and have) gone into this in more detail, so I advise you to look into it further, but there is sadly no better example of a world without meaning than the final seasons of HBO’s once incredible Game of Thrones.
The good news is that it is fairly easy to protect consequence in your writing, it just requires a few basic steps by you, the writer.
- Create a plot with consequence in mind (your antagonist should want to do something that impacts the protagonist in a decidedly negative way – consequence is present right there).
- Don’t be afraid to beat up your characters (this is a sign that they live in a world where their failures have noticeable consequences and not just a generic “you’ll get them next time” mentality).
- Allow your characters to surprise you (think back to Alan Moore and Rorschach) and honor their personalities.
- Ensure that every sequence has a meaningful impact. In other words, each chapter should help build the next – if I can just cut out chapters without anything really changing, it’s proof that there’s no real consequence within them.
- Make rules and stick to them, unless you have a really good reason (saving a character because you/the readers like them is usually not a good enough reason).
And that’s it. Consequence is our friend. It helps give meaning and impact to the stories we tell. We just have to be fearless enough to embrace it.