15 May 2015

The Law of Unintended Consequences

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This must be where The Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play. In short, this law concerns itself with outcomes which were not intended or expected to happen when a particular action was taken. These unintended outcomes are unforeseen or unanticipated by the originator. Generally, they fall into three categories.
For instance, the unexpected benefit is where a positive result is also received along with the intended result of the action. This positive result could be considered as good luck on the originator's part. Such as aspirin being developed as a mild pain reliever. Who knew in advance it would also turn out to lower the risk of heart attacks?

The second category can be an unexpected drawback, where the intended result is achieved, but it is accompanied by a downside to the action. An example would be where the use of antibiotics allow a person to combat germs, however some germs have then afterwards grown stronger and became antibiotic resistant.

And lastly, there can be a perverse effect which is a result contrary to the intended effect. In British colonial India, the government had concerns about too many cobras in Delhi, so they offered a bounty for dead cobras. This policy worked for the reduction of those reptiles until most of the snakes were gone. At that point, to continue getting bounty money from the government, people began breeding their own cobras that they could kill and turn in for payment. Realizing what was going on, the government cancelled the bounty program. Now left with quantities of worthless snakes, the people breeding cobras turned them loose. In the end, there were more cobras than there had been in the beginning.

However, since humans tend to believe they can fully control the world about them, it appears that The Law of Unintended Consequences will continue to survive.

Which brings us to storytelling.

How often in your plotting, either consciously or subconsciously, for a new story, do you place your characters in positions where a decision for a course of action, with all good intentions, then produces an unexpected drawback or perverse effect for those characters to deal with? It's a good way to provide conflict between characters, and if you're not already taking advantage of these two ploys in your manuscript, you might want to consider how you could use them to increase the story tension. As the bikers say in Sturgis, "Crap occurs." (I kinda cleaned that up in case tender young minds were reading this.)

So, let's take a look at the movie, The Road to Perdition, where an Irish mob boss is overly protective of his unruly son because the boss believes in family. As an unintended consequence, the son ends up killing half of the family of a hitman whom the boss loves more than he does his own biological son. Because of the murder of his family and wanting revenge, the hitman has to go on the run in order to try to find the location of the boss' son who has now been placed under the protection of the Chicago mob. As a means to smoke out the son's whereabouts, the hitman begins robbing banks where the Chicago mob launders its money. Since robbing banks requires a getaway driver and there is no one else he can trust, the hitman uses his own son to drive the getaway car, even though the hitman does not want his own son to grow up to be like him. Because of the bank robberies, the mob sends its resident killer to rub out the hitman, which then endangers the hitman's son. The movie is filled with actions or decisions taken by one character or another that have unexpected drawbacks or perverse effects coming back on the originator. Watch the movie for yourself and see what you think.

In the end, whether your characters have good intentions on the road to hell or face similar circumstances to The Road to Perdition, they're bound to fall victim to The Law of Unintended Consequences and your readers will find themselves involved in a page turner to find out what happens next. Go forth and see if it works for you.

Happy writing!


  1. Nice piece. Ihad not made the connection between the title of that movie (and Max Allan Collins book, right?) and what is paved with good intentions.

  2. Great stuff here, R.T. The rule of unintended consequences will help illumine my autobiography immensely. I'm thinking of titling it, "I Meant Well".

  3. Smart article, RT. I like. Although David's comment has me wondering about myself.

  4. As nice blog,but you could have made this blog college paper more cool if you could configure the language changer pluigin but all the same you have done a good job


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