By Claire Tucker
Every moment in every story makes a promise: the conversation, decision, or setting that the author is focusing on holds significance, whether immediately or in a future chapter. As a reader, you’re conditioned to expect even the tiniest details to connect to and advance the plot.
A character steals a shipment of computer equipment, and while you’re internally berating him for his stupidity, you’re also watching for whoever might catch him. Maybe his jealous (and less crafty) partner rats him out to the police. Maybe his girlfriend recognizes the laptops, forcing him to either admit his guilt or cover it up with a lie. Or maybe he believes he’s unstoppable and begins pulling off more delivery truck heists.
Regardless of the precise circumstances and motives at play, you know that the incident has to lead to one, if not more, sequel scenes. When a wrong merely exists, your frustration mounts and you suspect that the author’s moral compass is misaligned.
Consequences are the fulfillment of the unspoken contract between authors and readers, lending believability to the portrayals, establishing the laws of the story world, and raising the stakes. Meting out appropriate punishments and rewards according to your thematic goals can be challenging, however. The following five rules can help you gauge when you’re treating your characters with too heavy or light of a hand.
Rule #1: Action Triggers a Reaction
A character is running and stubs her toe. She pitches forward onto one knee, scraping her skin against the gravel. That’s an action and a reaction. Imagine if she instead continues without stumbling, or she rights herself and doesn’t even mutter an “ouch.” At a glance, the combination might still seem like an action-reaction sequence. But it’s not.
The character bashes her toe into a stray brick. That’s the action. Standing and carrying on is another action. Yes, readers will deduce from the second description that she fell, but that’s not a response to the pain throbbing first through her foot and then her leg. It’s another action.
Although I’m offering a simplistic example, it illustrates two important points: 1) Readers will notice that something is missing if a character remains impassive. 2) The magnitude of an action determines the extent of the reaction.
A bruised toe and a scuffed knee are minor injuries. Dwelling on those for a full paragraph or more would be entering the realm of the melodramatic—unless your character often passes out at the sight of blood and is cutting through an alley in a shady neighborhood. That changes her clumsiness into a risk. The context dictates how much time you need to spend on a single action and the width of the ripples it pushes across her arc.
Rule #2: The Consequences Must Be Natural
A character who takes a tumble and sets up a dentist’s appointment as soon as she has a strong enough cellular signal is either mentally unstable or the author’s puppet. Whatever happens next should directly arise from the preceding events, as well as her personality.
Returning to the runner, if she’s squeamish, she can’t inspect the damage to her knee, jump up, and rush home. She’s more liable to end up unconscious on the ground. A few minutes later, a newcomer approaches. Since thieves and murderers swarm to that part of town, his presence heightens the tension. If he confiscates the runner’s valuables, readers won’t be surprised.
Conversely, if he pauses to bandage the runner, readers will be surprised, but pleasantly so. They’ll also assume that the meeting of the two characters has a purpose (besides conveniently patching up the runner). If the stranger’s kindness is never referenced again, they’ll feel cheated. When you pair a character’s predicament with a development that readers won’t anticipate, you need to eventually provide a plausible explanation for it.
Rule #3: Small Actions Can Reap Big Consequences
I love when a seemingly inconsequential remark, object, or interaction represents the source of a problem—or becomes the key to unlocking it. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings both contain startling twists rooted in occurrences that appear innocuous. No one can forget how Bilbo Baggins picks up a ring in the Misty Mountains, unaware that his curiosity will destine Frodo to inherit the most dangerous piece of jewelry in Middle-Earth.
Many thriller and mystery novels employ the same tactic. A person the protagonist talks to in the second chapter turns out to be the villain, or a symbol that shows up over and over proves to be the clue that exposes a corrupt organization. Minutiae can be enlarged until the results become momentous.
The reverse, however, is never true. An explosion cannot and will not leave anything more than rubble behind. That would be anti-climatic and defraud readers. You can maximize the impact of a situation that’s already grievous, but you can’t minimize it, or you’ll break another fundamental principle of storytelling: raising the stakes.
Rule #4: Consequences Shape and Guide Characters
Children learn that certain behavior is either acceptable or unacceptable based on the praise or discipline that authority figures dole out. The pattern carries into adulthood, except with experience as the teacher, and the transformation that fictional characters undergo should reflect it.
In the popular musical The Greatest Showman, P. T. Barnum longs for acceptance from his family and friends, which drives him to pursue wealth and success at all costs—including estranging the people he’s trying to impress! When his efforts end in failure, he reassesses his life and realizes that he’s misplaced his priorities. Relationships should be at the center, not money and fame.
What lies do your characters need to discard before they can become better versions of themselves? Their choices will reveal their worldviews, and the consequences will demonstrate whether they’ve erred or not. If the outcome is favorable, they’re likely to repeat the action, and if it’s unfavorable, they’re likely to shy away from it.
Rule #5: Grace Isn’t an Excuse to Avoid Consequences
Secular writers strive to couch their own ideals in an entertaining narrative, whereas Christian writers have a higher responsibility: synchronizing the ethics in their stories with God’s Word.
One area that tends to go askew is repentance. No matter how genuine, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. When an individual acknowledges that they’ve sinned, God will extend forgiveness, but in most cases, He won’t alleviate the trouble they’ve heaped upon themselves. Although this truth can be hard to accept, don’t yield to the temptation to manipulate the trajectory of poetic justice. A story where the protagonist struggles because of his foolishness while finding peace in God will be far more powerful than one where you mitigate the sting of his mistakes.
Charles Dickens demonstrated that he understood how to balance justice and mercy in Great Expectations. Pip’s primary ambition during his youth is to escape poverty, but through a series of poor judgment calls, he loses all of the affluence he worked to gain. Although Joe, his brother-in-law, intervenes and pays off his debts, Pip’s past hovers over him for the rest of his life. He discovers that love is more valuable and lasting than material possessions.
Highlighting Your Story’s Theme
Consequences form the moral engine of your story, adding cohesion and propulsion. When writing, think about how the fruit of your characters’ actions can redefine who they are, jeopardize what they want or need, influence the plot, and link one scene to the next. When editing, keep an eye out for opportunities you overlooked and discrepancies between the cause and the effect. And remember your commission to point to eternal realities. Few scenarios are as compelling as a character who grows after facing the repercussions of her fallen nature.
Claire Tucker is a copyeditor, proofreader, science tutor, and violin teacher who lives in South Africa but frequently visits other worlds through books. She adores the world of fiction and loves to explore Christian themes through writing, particularly fantasy. She also enjoys being in nature, especially if it involves hiking in the beautiful Drakensberg. You can connect with her via Instagram (@clairetucker_writer or @clairetucker_editor), LinkedIn, and her website.