Monday, November 12, 2012

Tightening Your Plot (Part 2): Unintended Consequences

As a teenager I frequently heard the repeated words "You can make your choices, but you can't choose your consequences."  Being a teenager and knowing everything, I assumed whatever I wanted was right, so I didn't worry too much about consequences.  I eventually learned, (often in painful ways) that even seemingly correct choices sometimes lead to consequences you don't like.

From an author's point of view, this is an intriguing concept.  It provides yet another useful tool for creating hardship, plot twists, and timely escapes for your protagonist.
Philip Reeve, author of the Predator Cities quartet, gets good mileage out of his protagonists' good and bad choices.  Inconsequential actions lead to life-changing plot twists.

 At the beginning of Mortal Engines, the first in Reeve's four novel series, a desire to do something heroic quickly lands fifteen year-old Tom Natsworthy in trouble.  After saving Thaddeus Valentine, London's favorite son, from a would-be assassin, Tom makes a split second decision.  He will gain the great man's favor by single-handedly capturing the fleeing girl.

Tom catches up with her, grabs her pack, and, when she turns, he sees her hideously scarred face.  Before she jumps down one of the traction city's waste chutes, she blames Valentine for her deformities and gives Tom her name -- Hester Shaw.

A split second decision.  A glimpse of a girl's face and the knowledge of her name.  It's not much, but it's enough to convince Valentine to pitch Tom down the waste chute after her.

In Predator's Gold, unintended consequences work the other way for Tom.  Trapped in an air hanger with a brutal Stalker -- a resurrected killing machine that was once his and Hester's friend -- Tom and Hester are saved by the glimmer of a memory from the Stalker's former life.  Stalker Fang remembers Tom kneeling over it, grieving when its original self, Anna Fang, died.  The Stalker spares the young duo's lives and allows them to escape. 

Think of your character's decisions as stepping stones to future events.  A delayed unintended consequence can eventually save your protagonist or plunge him into deeper troubles.