When characters fail, either through negligence or action, their failure matters little if there are no consequences. The consequences may affect the characters directly or the people around them, but they have to be tangible and meaningful to bring anything to the plot. Consequences can enrich stories in a number of ways.
Spoiler Warning: The end of The Private Eye by Brian K Vaughan, and some Venture Bros episodes through Season 5.
1. To Highlight People’s Flaws
Character flaws are important, and they should result in tangible consequences that affect the story. Flaws are meaningless and forgettable if nothing bad happens because of them. We remember when characters are punished, especially if we love or hate them. Showing how character flaws result in actual consequences in the story drives home the point that our shortcomings can cause problems.
By the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s third season, Azula has long been a source of terror for our heroes. She causes destruction on a massive scale and goes out of her way to pursue personal grudges. She finally gets her just deserts when her father finally makes Azula’s dreams come true by naming her Firelord, only to make the title meaningless by crowning himself as emperor of the world. Azula’s power hungry nature can’t stand this snub, and she starts to lose it. This gives our heroes the opening they need to take her down, so she loses even the empty title of Firelord.
2. To Create a Sense of Unfairness
It can be comforting to think of the world as a just and fair place. Somebody does something immoral and somehow, someway, has to pay for it. However, that often isn’t the truth of things, and punishing characters with unintended consequences or letting awful people get away scot-free shows that the world can be unfair. While it’s painful to realize that even innocence can be rewarded with suffering, you can make a story much darker this way.
The ending of Brian K Vaughn’s Private Eye teaches us this lesson in brutal fashion. PI, the gumshoe, tries to keep a rocket that will restart the internet from launching into space.* He believes he sabotaged the computer that controlled the launch, but he really only wrecks the launchpad, altering the rocket’s trajectory, and it careens into a dam, creating a disaster. It’s a dramatic climax, and it paints a depressing tale about how the best intentions don’t matter if the results are wrong.
3. To Teach a Lesson
Fables teach lessons by showing failures and the resulting consequences. These failures demonstrate the morals of the fable, and the consequences serve as the warnings. If there isn’t a clear path from the failure to the consequence, the lesson will be lost somewhere along the way. Cause and effect have to be apparent in storytelling, especially if you’re using it to make a point.
In Venture Bros’ The Invisible Hand of Fate, Billy Quizboy’s career as a trivia contestant on game shows gets ruined when his partner Pete cheats for him and is caught. Later, Billy gets recruited by a government agency, the OSI, to spy on a villain. Billy cheats on a research project, which leads to a disaster that turns the villain into the super villain Phantom Limbs. Cheating leads to consequences not just for Billy but also for Phantom Limb and others as well, though the lesson is lost on Billy after the OSI wipes his memory.
4. To Initiate Change
Stories shouldn’t stagnate, and consequences should lead to change in noticeable ways. Mistakes can generate suspense by introducing peril and loss. Dire circumstances raise the stakes and escalate the plot in dramatic ways. Choosing the right consequences can make everything change and keep the story dynamic and exciting.
In Private Eye, things change when Mei decides to run from the cops and gets hit by a mail truck when running a red light. Everyone is injured, and she needs hospitalization. In the aftermath, villains find out about her and take her hostage. This drastically changes the dynamics between the antagonists and protagonists. Suddenly, the bad guys get a pretty strong upper hand, shifting the balance in their favor.
5. To Instill a Sense of Hopelessness
The severity of the consequence goes a long way toward setting the tone of the story. An extreme or prolonged aftermath can make things seem increasingly dire. Whether the characters recover from their failure or become actively worse can make a big difference. If things aren’t getting better during the story, it makes it feel like they never will. Setting up horrific and terrible consequences makes everything seem hopeless, which is an important part of horror stories.
Lovecraftian horror thrives on hopelessness, and Venture Bros plays with this idea in a spoof. The Order of the Triad, a trio of misfit heroes that includes two wizards and a vampire hunter, encounters an incredibly powerful monster that resembles Cthulhu. Nothing they do matters, and they can’t hurt the creature. It’s not long until the vampire hunter is crushed by a tentacle and thrown against a wall. The vampire hunter’s defeat is a severe consequence for picking a fight they couldn’t win, and true to the genre, it makes everything feel hopeless and lost for the Triad.
6. To Add Inter-Character Conflict
When consequences appear, people often look for someone to blame. This causes conflict and tension among characters. If people start pointing fingers, even at the wrong people, relationships become strained and characters must deal with infighting. Conflict and how it resolves itself are great chances for characters to define themselves. Owning up to a mistake tells us a lot about a character, but it says equally as much if they don’t.
In P.I., Patrick’s calling card is scribbled on the hand of a murder victim. The victim’s sister, Raveena, takes a run at him with a baseball bat, trying to kill him because she mistakenly assumes he’s the killer. After a bit of fighting, they start talking and she realizes he’s not the murderer. They begin working together. Due to some misplaced blame, the story naturally segues from an exciting conflict to introducing a new character. This moves the story forward in a natural way.
7. To Give Characters an Opportunity to Improve
In the wake of a fallout, characters can take a moment of reflection and become better people. Mistakes are a painful but classic way of learning, and this can assist character arcs. In the wake of consequences, everyone gets the chance to learn from the experience and apply it to their own tale. Of course, if people ignore opportunities to improve or to fix themselves, this delivers a very different statement about that character.
When developing a space shield for his brother’s space station, Dr. Venture ignores warning signs of radiation even when presented with evidence of mutations in the student scientists. It isn’t until it becomes a global problem that other people convince Dr. Venture that fixing the radiation sickness is at least as important as stealing credit for student effort. He slacks off and makes a bad “cure,” and it comes down to some real scientists to intervene and fix everything. He ignores or misses all chances to learn his lesson, cementing his reputation as an awful screwup.
Perfection is boring, and consequences are what drive the failure home and make it meaningful. Consequences should exist in stories for many reasons, but a little bit of forethought and proper placement can make them even more important and memorable.
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