Monday, March 21, 2011

Law 3: Truth is Choices and Consequences

Making Monday

J. Michael Straczynski has often said that the problem with television is not that there's too much violence but that there's not enough. Specifically, there's not enough of the life-cycle of violence.

In your average action/adventure yarn, when the bad-guys pop up you can send them packing with a lovely explosion. We never concern ourselves further with the consequences of that explosion. The gore of those blown to bits might have some cinematic interest, but we certainly can't be bothered with the people knocked out of the fight because they're suffering from concussion damage.

To his credit, Straczynski often showed people on Babylon 5 picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a battle: medics patching up the wounded, doctors certifying the dead, and commanders writing the final, terrible letter home.

The truth of the matter--one which users try to ignore but makers honor--is that actions, in general, and choices, in particular, have consequences.

Lest this sound overly moral, consider the fact that a groove is the consequence of running a certain chisel over a piece of wood. If employing the chisel had no consequences, there would be no woodcarvers.

In more neutral terms, we can describe the same thing as cause and effect.

I've observed that the best stories are about cause and effect. That's true at the macro level of the story, but it's also true at the micro level of the story telling. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene are the result of a choice, either conscious or unconscious, made by the author. At one level, mastery of the craft of writing is no more complicated than understanding the individual and cumulative consequences of each and every one of those choices.

"We create by making choices," John Vorhaus said in a post called The Writer's War at Writer Unboxed. "The writer’s war is the struggle to make choices without going nuts."

Like the horror that is an inevitable and natural part of witnessing the before, during, and after of real violence, the truth of choices and consequences is not pretty. It takes courage to face the truth--whether it's the truth that people can be seriously and permanently hurt if they try to do things they see on television, or that the words you've written aren't as meaningful as you imagine. And when you face the truth of choices and consequences, you begin to learn how to make choices without going nuts.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

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