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Exercise: The road to hell

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 Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: July 23, 2002
Reposted on: August 15, 2004
Reposted on: August 7, 2005

This exercise deals with plot, and with how our characters' intentions may be foiled through unforeseen outcomes of their actions (leading to further plot twists).

It is 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 is likely to 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 (from real life) 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 (and many more), telling someone not to do something increases the temptation to do just that - and thus often results in exactly the behaviour one was trying to avoid.

- in the grander scheme of things, planners and politicians 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 behaviour.

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 as Romeo never got the message about this ploy, her acts led to both their deaths. Throughout this play, we find examples of actions leading to unwanted consequences.

For this exercise, in 500 words or less, write a scene in which the character's actions backfire, leading to a contrary result than what was desired. Try to see how this can be used to increase narrative tension and thus drive the story forward.

For inspiration, think of times in your own life where an action had the opposite effect to what was desired, or think of news stories or anecdotes where this happened.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: August 4, 2002

It's been an interesting week seeing the law of unintended consequences playing out in the various submissions. We've seen many ways things can turn out unexpectedly - and in some cases, that was a good thing, though most submissions focused on negative consequences of actions.

What caused things to turn out as they did? Inexperience or lack of knowledge were prime causes. Misjudging how someone else would react was another - in some cases, the root cause was actually a fundamental problem in a relationship.

Most interesting to me were the submissions where one action inadvertently provoked another, which itself had unintended consequences. A child's misguided attempt to cook for her mother, for example, provoked anger in the mother, which in turn will have unintended negative impact on the child - we can see how that child's confidence and willingness to try things will be affected in future, simply because the mother reacted in the heat of the moment without considering the full situation.

Good work, everyone. Now, on to the next submission!


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.