The Law of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, things don’t go as planned.

Macquarie Island is a tiny bit of land off the coast of New Zealand. Here’s its story in a nutshell:

Macquarie Island’s untouched breeding grounds for penguins and seals draws the attention of sailors.

The sailors drool and set their greedy “wanters” into high gear and hunt the creatures for blubber and fur to near extinction.

During these hunts, rats from their ships invaded the island.

Rats and mice flourish due to lack of predators, endangering human food sources.

Humans introduce cats to take care of the rats and bring rapidly breeding rabbits to the island for a food source for humans. And the cats and bunnies breed like, well, rabbits.

The cats eat rats and rabbits, but then the hungry felines turn to the sea birds, consuming the fine feathered foul at a rate of 60,000 per year, disrupting the ecosystem even further.

Humans try to reduce the number of cats to save the birds.

The bunnies, left to their happy ways without predators to keep them in check, gobble up nearly half of the island’s vegetation—which is a bigger problem than if everyone would’ve left the original stowaway rats to do their thing to begin with.

So, from the early 1800s until now, man caused one huge mess. And we can’t figure out how to clean it up without causing further unintended consequences.

A plus B equals C.


Every solution to the island’s problem seemed logical at the time. But “C” can’t always be predicted or found. (Neither can the values for X and Y in most high school classrooms…)

All of this makes for great fiction writing. This is where the twists and turns come into play. This is where we see our characters reveal themselves—when things don’t go their way, how will they respond? And then the author/writer sends that character through another equation.

Will A plus B equal C this time, or will there be another elephant up a tree somewhere?

The thing about consequences? They fan out and drift like aerosol from a spray can. You never know how far the consequences of one simple choice will spread.

People are unpredictable. Our planet is unpredictable (even though we think we’ve got Mother Nature all figured out). Fiction worlds can be erratically unpredictable (as long as the author doesn’t cheat—see the post Psych! in the drop-down menu).

How much worse can it possibly get?

The answer in fiction? A lot worse. Think of “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” She died, of course.

The answer in real life? Even worse than that… Think Hurricane Katrina. One solution led to a thousand other problems.

In fiction? Consequences are fun to play around with and brainstorm outcomes. Authors love all those “elephants up a tree” scenes.

Picking one of a dozen things that could happen and turning it into a twist or turn.

In real life? Well, real life doesn’t need our help making stuff up—it’s got the market cornered.

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