Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Week's Practice Exercise

The Road to Hell (v.2)
Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Reposted on: November 7, 2010
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Exercise: In 400 words or less, write a scene in which the character's actions backfire, leading to a result contrary to what the actor desired. Show us how this can be used to increase narrative tension and thus drive the story forward.

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Sometimes our characters' intentions may be foiled--unforeseen outcomes result from their actions, and that leads to further plot twists.

It's been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This principle is also referred to as the "law of unintended consequences." Any action might have consequences the actor hadn't thought about and didn't want. In writing, this can help drive the plot and maintain or increase the protagonist's level of difficulty.

Here are some trivial and less trivial examples of the law of unintended consequences:

-- If we tell a child not to lick a metal post on a freezing day, the child is more likely to try it to see if that's true. Similarly, a standard response to a "Fresh Paint" sign is to touch to see if the paint really is wet. In either case, telling someone not to do something increases the temptation to do just that..

-- In the grander scheme of things, legislators run into this all the time. For example, city planners try to deal with traffic jams by building more roads, with more lanes. As a result, people drive more, so the roads are just as jammed as before. In another example, Prohibition didn't reduce the negative impacts of drinking, but instead increased criminal behavior.

Literature gives us many examples of this principle. Consider the classic Romeo and Juliet tragedy.

Juliet's parents try to plan her life, who she will marry. This only drives her to a desperate act of rebellion. Juliet tries to escape her parents' control by faking her own death--but since Romeo never gets the message about this ploy, her acts lead to both their deaths. Throughout this play, we find examples of actions leading to unwanted consequences.

Use these examples to lead you to an idea of your own.

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Exercise: In 400 words or less, write a scene in which the character's actions backfire, leading to a result contrary to what the actor desired. Show us how this can be used to increase narrative tension and thus drive the story forward.

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In your critiques, note whether you recognize the intention that goes awry, the way that happens, and the consequences. As always, discuss the quality of the writing in general.

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writing Workshop.

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