The Consequence-Based Narrative
Today I got up and then had breakfast. Why did I eat? Because my last meal was fourteen hours prior and I was hungry. Afterwards I washed up. Why? Because I had used things to make breakfast and now they were dirty.
In life, things happen as a result of other things. A person doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to cheat on their spouse after a decade of happy marriage; instead there are months, even years of resentment that lead to entertaining the thought of temptation, all spelling from apathy which in turn was generated through arguing, possibly over a single, simple choice. That affair is due to the partner always leaving their used teabags in the sink instead of putting them in the bin; it just took a decade to escalate. In fiction, like life, things should happen as a result of other things.
“Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”
Fiction is a compounded and concentrated version of life. It doesn’t matter if the story takes place in outer space seventy millennia from now, or in a parallel dimension populated by talking hedgehogs, the same rules apply. Actions have consequences, and that affects not only the character that made that decision, but others around them, and others around those characters, and further still, and so on. Like ripples spread across a lake, each action, each choice, is a stone dropped in the water of our narrative.
It shouldn’t be: This happened then this happened then this happened then this happened.
Writing one scene after another where something occurs will not create a compelling narrative, but instead just form a list of random events. Instead, you almost have to look at the entire story in reverse, backtracking each event to see what caused it, and what caused that, and on and on until you reach the inciting incident of the tale.
It should be: That happened because that happened because that happened because that happened.
That’s not to say you have to plan out the whole story in advance, nor write it backwards. Instead, ensure each action leads to something, and everything that occurs as you go is the result of a previous choice or interaction, or lack thereof.
To work forwards whilst maintaining a consequence-based narrative, instead of writing a series of scenes that just happen sequentially, consider applying Newton’s Laws of Motion to your characters within the story you are telling.
Newton’s First Law of Motion
An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.
The object in question is the character in your story. They are either motionless or at a constant speed when the story begins; their status quo. They would remain that way, but an outside force acts upon them. That could be as simple as a knock at the door from an old friend, or as complex as being forced into volunteering to take a family member’s place in a battle to the death. Either way, an outside force has changed their direction and velocity, whether that is through a huge impact or the slightest nudge. As the story progresses more outside forces act upon the character, always altering their velocity and speed. The story ends when they finally reach a new status quo, either stationary or in motion at a new constant.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion
The total forces on an object are equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration of the object.
This involves a little imagination, but the idea is that your character’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual weight, times the acceleration they are now experiencing from their previous status quo, is equal to the total forces acting upon them.
If a businessman is in a traffic jam and decides to get out of his car and abandon it, get into a fight, steal a gun, hold up a restaurant, and commit murder, all within the space of a few hours, then the rate of his acceleration is incredibly high. If he has always been quite a stubborn person, his relative mass will also be quite high as he is not easily swayed from his regular direction and velocity. Multiplying his acceleration with his mass will give a huge theoretical number, which is the total sum of all the forces acting upon that businessman. In other words, whatever caused him to get out of his car in the first place is more likely to be a combination of pressures, stresses, frustrations, and disappointments, than it is to be a single event.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
If my fist punches your face, the force I exert on your face is also sent back into my fist. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When your character has a force applied to them by another character there will be a repercussion, and that moment will affect both characters, not just one. It may not affect each of them in the same way, but there will be an equal and opposite reaction on both sides.
By applying these three laws to each of your characters from the moment they appear on the page, everything within your story will follow a consequence-based narrative. Each decision or action a character undertakes will have repercussions, whether immediately or later in the story, and situations will arise because of these ramifications that you would not necessarily have considered. At that point, the world you are creating, and the characters within it, come to life, and the story can write itself.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.