Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: July 23, 2002
Reposted on: August 15, 2004
Reposted on: August 7, 2005
This exercise deals with plot, and with
how our characters'
be foiled through unforeseen outcomes of their actions (leading to
It is said that the road to hell is paved
with good intentions. This
principle is also referred to as the law of unintended consequences.
action is likely to have consequences the actor hadn't thought about,
didn't want. In writing, this can help drive the plot and maintain or
increase the protagonist's level of difficulty.
Here are some trivial and less trivial
examples (from real life) of
of unintended consequences:
- if we tell a child not to lick a metal
post on a freezing day, the
child is more likely to try it to see if that's true. Similarly, a
standard response to a "Fresh paint" sign is to touch to see if the
really is wet. In either case (and many more), telling someone not to
something increases the temptation to do just that - and thus often
in exactly the behaviour one was trying to avoid.
- in the grander scheme of things,
planners and politicians run into
all the time. For example, city planners try to deal with traffic jams
building more roads, with more lanes. As a result, people drive more,
the roads are just as jammed as before. In another example, Prohibition
didn't reduce the negative impacts of drinking, but instead increased
Literature gives us many examples of this
principle. Consider the
Romeo and Juliet tragedy.
Juliet's parents try to plan her life, who
she will marry. This only
drives her to a desperate act of rebellion. Juliet tries to escape her
parents' control by faking her own death - but as Romeo never got the
message about this ploy, her acts led to both their deaths. Throughout
this play, we find examples of actions leading to unwanted
For this exercise, in 500 words or less,
write a scene in which the
character's actions backfire, leading to a contrary result than what
desired. Try to see how this can be used to increase narrative tension
thus drive the story forward.
For inspiration, think of times in your
own life where an action had
opposite effect to what was desired, or think of news stories or
where this happened.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: August 4, 2002
It's been an interesting week seeing the
law of unintended
playing out in the various submissions. We've seen many ways things can
turn out unexpectedly - and in some cases, that was a good thing,
most submissions focused on negative consequences of actions.
What caused things to turn out as they
did? Inexperience or lack of
knowledge were prime causes. Misjudging how someone else would react
another - in some cases, the root cause was actually a fundamental
in a relationship.
Most interesting to me were the
submissions where one action
provoked another, which itself had unintended consequences. A child's
misguided attempt to cook for her mother, for example, provoked anger
the mother, which in turn will have unintended negative impact on the
child - we can see how that child's confidence and willingness to try
things will be affected in future, simply because the mother reacted in
heat of the moment without considering the full situation.
Good work, everyone. Now, on to the next
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.