Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Write for the night: Dire Consequences

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•17

With All Hallow’s Eve here I’m still reading the Shirley Jackson anthology (with growing admiration) and I’m still unsettled by what happens in her stories and how her twisted mind works. Reading along I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories function and how fear is wired into our bodies and brains. Some theories suggest our most primal fears reach back thousands of years when humans were prey. Gulp. You might argue in this era of terrorism and unstable people owning military weapons we still are.

Many genres are embedded with doom and come with mega stakes: Horror, dark fantasy, thrillers, psychological suspense and thrillers, dystopian sci-fi.  Demons, monsters, murderers, computers gone rogue, soul-stealing dangers abound. Woven throughout the sense that something dreadful is going to happen…. which brings us around to consequences. The cause and effect of storytelling.  Our deepest-held fears, our night terrors come true. Justice or injustice delivered. Consequences whisper with every screeching floor board, every lurking shadow. Consequences too horrible to be entertained. Consequences torment the characters and thus the readers.

Consequences like Heath Ledger’s Joker knows where you live and what makes you tick, and has a sick prank in mind just for you.

Consequences like you woke up one morning and a huge dome has mysteriously landed on your town separating you and the townspeople from the rest of humankind.

Consequences like a man-eating shark is marauding the coastline near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Consequences like the White Walkers, a giant army of ice monsters who have the ability to raise the dead. Led by their king, accompanied by hordes of the undead, they are stalking humans, storming south.   Oh, and if they reach Westeros they could usher in a long winter that would wipe out everyone and everything.

Consequences are especially deadly in horror fiction because the monsters and bad guys seem unstoppable. The monsters can be lizard-like or zombies or heartless serial killers. The man-eating shark’s hunger is unquenchable. The killer’s needs and will seem boundless.

So how do you create compelling consequences? 

Establish what is at stake, the dreaded alternative. Consequences matter. The Game of Thrones series begins with evidence of the white walkers and the dangers they present. Some of the most powerful stakes are established before the story begins.

The protagonist has a lot to lose. His or her actions will always bring about consequences. Often  a test is involved.

Consider adding unintended consequences.

Your protagonist needs to experience consequences early in the story and then keep them coming.

At least one character must be especially vulnerable. In Game of Thrones think of bumbling Sawell  Tarly of the  Night’s Watch. As the series goes along he is saddled with Gilly, a wilding woman and her baby. Their relationship turns to romance and Sam is allowed to travel to the Citadel to become a maester. Despite an exhausting workload he begins searching The Citadel for a weapon or clue to fight the white walkers. Is the fate of the kingdom in his hands? Because Sam is bumbler. His father despises him. He doesn’t always listen to Gilly when he should. (Clue: as the series goes along men not listening to women creates serious consequences and ultimately starts shifting the power to women.)

Sam and Gilly and baby Sam also illustrate a simple dynamic: they love each other. In fiction if a character is loved or beloved the consequences have more weight.

Feature your protagonist screwing up. Just think of all the spats Harry Potter got involved with. Not to mention many of them were with his friends. And remember how many times he screwed up spells and other Hogwarts lessons.

Give your protagonist important decisions and moral dilemmas with mega ramifications. Protagonists always pay a price for success or goals accomplished.

Make the consequences visible, public, not only personal or internal.

If possible feature time running out or a deadline.

If possible feature poetic justice. In real life criminals often get away with crimes, incompetent politicians are elected to office. Fiction reinforces our moral codes.  Shakespeare’s plays often feature this device as does Jane Austen’s stories. This means that not everyone will live happily ever after.

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