Monday, May 25, 2015

The Ripple Effect in Storytelling

I recently watched a TV show that featured a scene with the main character and a dog. It was a very cute scene, but even though the story remained in that setting, the dog never appeared again. Basically, they brought the dog on stage, had him do his part, and then forgot about him. Well, they had him go into a kennel with no door. As if that was going to keep him there while people traipsed around his home.

 As a dog owner, I was quite bothered by the fact the dog basically disappeared. Although people came and went in this house, the dog was never seen or heard again. References were made that the home owner had a dog, had even worked with a companion dog program, but the dog itself made no other appearance.

The script writers forgot about the ripple effect. What’s that, you ask? Well, once something is introduced into the story, it has consequences that ripple out. Imagine a pebble tossed into a pond, it hits the water and then ever widening ripples reach out to touch more area than the pebble itself touched.
Now let’s look at the word "consequence." It has two meanings. The first defines consequence as something that can be the result of an action or condition. Think outcome or repercussion or aftermath. The second definition of consequence is importance or relevance. Used in that sense, words such as significance, substance, or value come to mind.

They gave that dog consequence–significance–and then they erased him. In reality or fiction, the dog lived in the house. It was one of those cute dogs you assume is accustomed to attention and therefore would not ignore the different humans who come into the room. The whole sequence ended up detracting from the storyline for me since I kept worrying about where the dog went.

Who could ignore these guys?
As a result of introducing the dog into the story, there should have been more interaction between the other characters and the dog. The act of introducing the dog as a character who lived in that house meant there should’ve been more of a ripple effect. The dog should have been in more scenes, removed for some reason, or not in any scenes at all.

When I set up a scene, I try to keep in mind the consequences of what I write. I try to imagine what kind of ripple effect I will cause in the story as well as with the other characters. When I was outlining my Civil War era novel Stealing Destiny, I knew my heroine, Billie was going to spy for the South. I needed her to remain in her home, which had been taken over by Yankees, but I needed her to go undetected.

Billie had been thrown from a horse and broken her left ankle when she was twelve years old. She fractured the growth plate, preventing further growth of that leg. Without a shoe designed to compensate for the height difference, she limps. Here’s the thing, once I crippled Billie, she had to be a cripple for the entire story. If she wasn’t wearing her corrective shoe, she limped. But this injury made it possible for her to pose as a crippled stable boy during the war and gather military information.

Let’s say your main character wear glasses. Is it a slight correction or is he practically blind without them? If it’s a slight correction and he loses his glasses during the story, not a huge deal. If he’s borderline blind without his spectacles and they’re broken with no replacement available, then he has a major problem. The loss of the glasses will color every action he takes until he’s able to replace them.

As you build your story scenes, think about the consequences of what you write and how it impacts the characters–the ripple effect. Don’t leave your readers wondering what happened to the dog.

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