Amping Your Story Stakes: Why Even Positive Events Should Have Consequences

Amping Your Story Stakes: Why Even Positive Events Should Have Consequences

This week’s video offers another example from Jurassic Park for an easy way to instantly inject more continuity and tension in your story stakes.

Video Transcript:

Good fiction is about consequences. Something happens which causes something else to happen, which keeps the cause-and-effect ball rolling. If the cause has no effect, then the story peters out and dies.

Usually, when we talk of consequences, we think of characters receiving just desserts for doing something wrong. Or if we’re getting really sophisticated, we think about characters who are caught between two really hard choices—in which either decision is going to ladle out heavy consequences. That’s the stuff of great theme and great fiction.

Today, I want to add an extra layer to this discussion. Another awesome way to amp your story stakes is by making sure even your character’s quantifiably good choices and actions have major consequences.

In continuing with our little series about Jurassic Park, which I began two weeks ago, let’s consider a great example from Jurassic Park.

The Third Act in this movie opens with Laura Dern’s character Dr. Ellie Sattler rebooting the power throughout the park. This is an inarguably good move. She’s taking back control from the chaos and the dinosaurs. As she says, “Mr. Hammond, I think we’re back in business!”

Laura Dern Ellie Sattler Jurassic Park rebooting power

On that level, this is a straightforward scene. It definitely advances the plot all on its own. But it gets so much better because there are deeper layers to what’s going on.

She has no idea—but viewers do—that her boyfriend Dr. Grant and Mr. Hammond’s grandchildren are concurrently in the process of climbing the park’s perimeter fence. Her actions in juicing up the power to that very fence ends up electrocuting the younger child, Timmy.

Tim Electrocuted Jurassic Park

What could have been an entirely straightforward, simplistic scene was amped to a whole new level by allowing this objectively good event to have fascinatingly negative side effects.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How could you amp your story stakes by allowing your characters’ good choices to have surprisingly complicated outcome? Tell me in the comments?

Amping Your Story Stakes: Why Even Positive Events Should Have Consequences

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Action and reaction, cause-and-effect, one thing builds on the last. Yes.
    But forever “amping up” is not my thing. I write historical novels in which the facts along historical the time-line give me the railway on which my story travels. The story fits into the timeline. The details of the story are fiction, following fictitious characters in their personal lives. I try to give a feel of the times. I’m not into “amping up the tension. There is tension enough in the historical events they live through, and in their personal lives. I do usually find a way to work up to a believable climax using historical events. BUT the historical events leading to the climax do not, in themselves, ‘amp up’ tension to the climax.
    I think this ‘amping up’ may suit a story based upon a few hours or days of some kind of personal adventure, a murder mystery, a werewolf fantasy, a romance… but I cannot use the technique in my books because —
    It is artificial. It comes across as artificial. I simply could not do it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Amp up” is perhaps a bit overstated (for the sake of the title). The idea is to complicate issues, particularly character actions and the consequences–which I think you do admirably throughout your series.

      • Katie, as always, you are a fount of kindness. My problem with ‘guidelines’ stated as requirements is that the new writer may think it’s necessary to pile on the complications, rather than letting the complications fall naturally along the story line.
        Of course I do not dispute the rising arc of tensions, conflicts, and/or complications throughout a story – just that it ought never be forced, or inserted for the sake of ‘amping it up’. It ought to be organic to the balancing of characters with events; and along the way there ought to be time to breathe a little.
        Am I saying this clearly? Does this make sense?

        • Lyn, Both you and Kate make great sense, as I write in three genres: historical, mystery, and science fiction. All three of these has a different need for rising and falling tension. In my historical, I’m note sure that I threw her into the worst situation of her life, but it was bad enough for her and she had to find her own feet and make it work. The mystery is easy enough to build tension from murder to murder.

          In Jurassic Park, the writer followed the “put them in a bad situation and make it worse” rule. Right up until the very last scene with the T-Rex and Raptors we weren’t at all sure they would make it through. it was a bit of a breathless race through the book and the movie with a few times to sort of relax (only to wonder if we should be relaxing). Not for everybody, this pacing, but it works perfectly for Kate’s blog here.

          I think what you were trying to say is that each story should rise and fall, tension-wise, on the story being told and within the genre. A lot of the tension comes from our characters, too. What they do or how they respond to situations often gives its own tension. Like anyone else, sometimes they respond well and sometimes they don’t.

          Hope that makes sense.

    • Garrett says:

      Lyn, I’ve never read any of your books (however, after looking at them they seem interesting) and am not fully aware of how your approach historical fiction.
      However, I think the point that I got from the article is always looking for a way to *dramatize*, or add an element of subtext to an otherwise, flat and straight-laced scene, chapter or moment.
      I totally agree with you in regards to artificiality. And in response to your last reply, maybe what you originally said just came off to sound more like you allow the factual events of history to move your dramatic cause and effect movements in your work as opposed to crafting them for a specific reason.

      • Garrett – the way I develop a historical novel is just too complex to put into a few words. Essentially, the characters live in their historical time, just as you and I live in our time: and the major historical events affect them just as current events affect us – rather like watching the daily TV news. We know what is happening, but we go on with our little lives.
        Unlike real life, in fiction one thing leads to the next, one thing builds on the last, until the layers build into subplots (or subplots build into layers?) in natural progression as we follow the characters. There is no artificial ratcheting up of conflict ~ the conflicts build in natural, fluid progression.
        The protagonist of the Schellendorf series is involved in events as a serving officer in the German army. What happens to him along the way – and what he causes to happen – form the conflict and drama of the four novels. History is mere backdrop, but contributes clearly to the direction of the story and its dramatic arc.
        *sigh* Sorry. This sounds so analytical.

        • WHOA. The initial statement was – “Why Even Positive Events Should Have Consequences.”
          I believe in my diatribe above that I just echoed that very sentiment. YES, even positive events must have consequences.
          One thing must build to the next, all the way through a novel. Build and build and build.
          And Katie is showing us how to do it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Totally agree with you about artificiality and forcing rules. One of the chief things any new writer needs to understand is that guidelines such as this one are definitely specific to certain story scenarios and should never be something that the author has to force into a story.

  2. My favorite example of good storytelling from that movie 🙂

    As I said in the last JP post, I hate when stories require the characters to do something stupid just to advance the plot. My approach is to have my characters do sensible things that result in unexpected consequences (to either the character or the audience). Since I always have three protagonists, they will occasionally have a Sattler/Grant/fence incident. I like to ask, “what would a reasonable person do under these circumstances?” and then either set up a roadblock, or have it backfire. The backfiring is what I use to build the mystery of the nature of the villain(s) and amp the stakes.

    To use another movie example, if your characters are in the jungle and find out that an evil space alien (ESA) is killing people in their vicinity, then the sensible thing is to have them arm up and travel in pairs.

    But suppose you write that the only survivor of an encounter with the ESA is the lone unarmed woman — who in every other movie would have been a red shirt? Now you upend audience expectations and you’ve suddenly made the ESA more frightening and interesting. The audience also gets a hint as to the motives of the ESA.

    In this case, they learn the ESA is a Predator and it’s hunting people. Further, it only likes to hunt “fair game,” and believes unarmed people are not “fair game.” Doing the sensible thing will get you killed. So now the audience will accept the character doing something that’s ostensibly not sensible: Get rid of the guns and fight mano y mano. Of course, Arnie was careful to prepare the battle ground first, which is key to keeping the audience from feeling the writers railroaded him into carrying the Idiot Ball. If I have my characters make a desperate choice, I also have them do everything possible to stack the deck in their favor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, when you posted that comment last week about this scene I had to do a double-check to make sure I hadn’t incorrectly posted this post then. :p It’s a fabulous scene. I haven’t seen Predator, but that sounds like a great plot development as well.

      • since we are analysing Predator under the light of repercussions from a positive action. Reaching the choppa, the only way to escape the jungle and the ultimate goal, would turn destructive since the predator could consider everyone in the vehicle as armed and thus eligible targets. The predator hunts to prove it’s valor, and it would probably leave arnold’s character alone if he didn’t challange the hunter’s skill by laying a trap.

  3. Dr. Grant is not Dr. Satler’s boyfriend. They’re colleagues.

    • Idunno, some of their conversations indicate a romantic interest.

      In the beginning Grant responds to a rude boy by using a velociraptor talon to tease him. After, he asks Sattler if she’s sure she wants kids. She replies, “Not that one.”

      Two, when Hammond’s grandchildren have to choose vehicles, they specifically say that Sattler said they should sit with him, because it would be good for him. If she’s his colleague, his desire to avoid children is none of her business. If she’s looking at him as the potential father of her children, then his attitude is very much her business.

      If they were merely colleagues, he’d have no reason to question her desire for kids and she’d have no reason to care how he gets along with them. Otherwise, those two scenes could be cut entirely. They’re there to support his arc, and the reason the arc would matter is in a romantic context.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yeah, I don’t know how the book slants it, but the movie definitely indicates they were romantically involved. Alan basically says as much to Ian.

  4. In the novel I’m currently outlining, the protagonist ends up in a situation that I won’t attempt to coherently summarize. But in essence, he is afflicted by an unexplained condition. When his community attempts to treat him, they don’t realize that they are taking away his only means of saving someone else.

    I remember that scene in Jurassic Park seriously upping the tension for me. Dinosaur chases? No problem. But that scene…
    An effective trick. Glad you brought it up. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always like it when stories make the external conflict as personal as possible. And when there’s a reason the protagonist *can’t* back away from it, even though that’s what he wants? All the better!

  5. I remember that scene in Jurassic Park now and that has given me scope for the future. I wonder if this applies to a situation in my next book where a good citizen takes photos of youths committing an assault. He turns the photos over to the police who thank him but the consequence is that he ends up getting sued by the parents of one of the youths who committed the assault.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Great example. It should never be easy for the character to do the right thing.

  6. Katie,

    Thanks for another great insight. Consequences are generally viewed as the result of bad decisions. Don’t drink and drive or you could end up in jail, for example.

    But life is full of good decisions and choices being “rewarded” by a negative side effect. Ever hear the phrase, No good deed goes unpunished?

    What surprises me is that I can’t recall ever having a good choice or decision result in a negative consequence. At least I don’t recall making that conscious choice.

    Food for thought!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always fun when we can enact this twist in a story. It always leads to interesting place and forces us to consider interesting thematic elements.

  7. I have recently done this in my middle grade novel. I am delighted you point it out as a great strategy in writing. My character made a decision to save her family but that which ultimately had dreadful consequences (beyond her knowledge) to another character in the book. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds great. There are always results to whatever we do. That’s one thing that isn’t always explored in modern action movies, when you know the chaos the protagonists are creating logically has to have huge ripple effects.

  8. In my story a character uses an explosive Charge to disable an enemy group in hot pursuit. Ironically, she triggers the fire alarm with that. The result is that she area she is in will be flooded with Halon gas within 30 seconds (industrial fire extinguishing system). Halon binds the oxygen in the air.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent! This is a great example of allowing the character to move toward her goal, but still completing the scene structure with a disaster.

  9. I think William Dietrich is a master of this. In “hadrian’s wall” Valeria does plenty of noble things that in other fiction would be rewarded with a small step towards her goal, only to see it backfire.
    -when she gives coins to the beggars, she gets mobbed by the crowd.
    – when she tries to save her friend, he gets killed by celts and she gets abducted.
    – when she learns the main antagonist’s intrigue, she runs to warn the roman soldiers only to get inprisoned.

  10. Bookmarked, I definitely want to come back to this and try this out. 🙂 And or see if I’ve done that already or not. hum …..

    I just hit 89k words 😀 Probably needs some trimming, I’ll worry about that later.

  11. This is excellent. I am writing my novel in first person and I am thinking the consequences of posivite events will show up eventually. What are your thoughts or examples with using first person?

  12. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    The basics of good storytelling remain the same whatever narrative you’re using, so everything discussed in this post can be enacted just the same in your first-person story. For more on first-person in general, you might find these posts useful.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Third Act in this movie opens with Laura Dern’s character Dr. Ellie Sattler rebooting the power throughout the park. …read more […]

  2. […] often accomplish this by having bad things happen to our protagonist. K.M. Weiland reminds us that even positive events should have consequences to raise the stakes. We can also entice readers by piquing their curiosity. Beth Hill explains how […]

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