Second-Order Consequences and stories

What is a second-order consequence? Well, a first-order consequence is the immediate consequence of a decision, usually the desired outcome. The second-order consequences are the ones that are separated by time and space from the first order, and if you’re not thinking things through, are usually “Unintended consequences.” And, to be fair, even if you think things through, it’s impossible to account for how everything interacts – so there are always unintended consequences, though they may be years or decades down the road, and classified as third and fourth-order consequences…

Let state this once, and lay this firmly to rest: Yes, in real life, politicians usually pass laws with the blinkered vision that it will only create the desired affect, and activist judges try to rule from the bench with the sincere belief that only their desired outcome is possible. Activists themselves are often utterly convinced that if only they get their way, then the world will absolutely do what they want. This is NEVER true, because real life is vastly, vastly more complex than any ideology can handle, humans are complicated and have their own motivations, and cultures and countries have fundamentally different priorities from each other – culture being about the mental furniture that shapes the world, not some cute ethnic clothing and funny foods.

HOWEVER, this is a writing blog, so please keep your politics out of the comment section. Even if I agree with you, I still want you to keep your politics out of the comment section. Thank you!

Back to stories! In stories, because they are simplified worlds we’re writing, we can make the first-order consequence come about. (Unless you’re a pantsing writer in the zone, just letting it flow into your mind and out your fingers. Then your muse or subconscious is just laughing at attempts to control…) But the key to making it realistic is to think through the second-order consequences (and third-order, if there’s enough time in the story.)

This is where good worldbuilding comes from: working backwards from what you have to the consequences of what’s needed for that. If your world only has nomads on a grassy plain, they won’t be wearing gold lame fabric – because gold lame / cloth of gold requires the infrastructure to mine the gold, refine it, beat it into extremely thin sheets and cut it into very fine ribbons, and then the stability of a civilization that can support a craftsman whose entire job is winding the extremely thin ribbon of gold around the fiber before it is woven.

Similarly, those Damascus steel swords? Those require charcoal to make… and charcoal means trees. (Or coal. Again, hard to come by as nomads on grassy plain. Also, large kilns and smelters are non-portable.)

So if you want your characters to have those, they have to come from somewhere. Which means other cultures. Which means trade, raid, and war. Which means history, and feuds, and boundaries, borders, and…

Also, the consequences of nomadic cultures extend to what they find valuable and what they don’t. The mongols were free with gifts of luxuries, gold, and precious gems, silks and spices… and extremely guarded of their writing system and their knowledge. Because one is something very valuable you can always keep safe, secret, and hidden as long as you keep your mouth shut – the other requires effort to take along every time you change grazing pastures.  Completely different from a settled culture hoarding their gold and their grain, but uncaring about exporting their writings and knowledge…

Going the other direction, second-order consequences are where sequels come from. (I’m studying sequels right now, because I’m trying to figure out how to write one well. Which appears to be as hard as, if not harder, than writing the stand-alone novel.) So you hero defeated the Big Bad, and took the throne… Did the Big Bad have alliances and trade agreements? If so, how do they react to the (relative) power vacuum during the struggle and after the consolidation of power by our hero? Do conquered lands use this as the chance to break away from the Formerly Evil Empire? If so, they’re likely to split along old tribal lines instead of former country boundaries, or both, creating messy multifactional civil war…

Not to mention that the Capital of the Evil Empire is usually kept flush with loot from the war, and heavy tithes/ taxes on the outlying areas… and war both removes the able-bodied farmhands to do the planting and harvest, and the money to buy food from other areas to survive the shortfall. Thus famine usually follows war… and that leads to people on the move, especially to the urban centers where there’s still food. And when you get more people who want work and food than there is available, you get unrest. And when you depose a power, you get factions that want to keep the power they had under the old system, and those that want to claim more power, and neither are above using the unrest in the streets as a tool….

Or, to pull a historical example, after the generational saga, the epic war to reclaim the land from the invaders from across the sea was concluded, the shattered countries untied in empire for the first time… what do you do with the large, heavily armed, standing army that has spent their entire lives fighting, and knows no other trade? Now that there’s no battlefield loot to pay them, they’re bankrupting you. Typically, the answer involves starting another war and sending them to be slaughtered in job lots, to prevent them from becoming a revolutionary’s pawn and deposing the power on the throne…

Well, there’s this crazy Genoese named Cristobal Colon, who promises a shortcut to conquer the extremely rich spice islands, providing riches enough to rebuild a bloodsoaked land whose olive, orange, and almond orchards have been burnt to the ground, and wheat fields gone fallow by battle line after battle line over 500 years tramping back and forth over them. And when he fails, but finds a brand new land with different spices and gold, and natives who are even more barbaric than the Moors… they actually cut the hearts out of living humans for sacrifice! Well, you send your Reconquistadores (re-conquerors) to become Conquistadores, thus neatly solving the problem of standing army. They’re justified in the name of G-d to slaughter these demonically evil barbarians, leading a large native army who want to overthrow their Aztec conquerors… and bring back the riches to not just to pay your army and rebuild your lands, but to become a true world power!

Cardboard-cutout history has the Spanish scrambling an army out of nowhere that managed to somehow conquer a continent and a half, all by themselves. Better worldbuilding has the Spanish leading the wave of a local uprising with alien, highly-effective tech after the leader burns the boats in a crazy motivational act… really rich worldbuilding explains where this battle-hardened army from, and why they couldn’t go back home, and what was really motivating them.

This is one of the things Patricia Briggs does extremely well in her Mercy Thompson series – the help in exchange for a favour results in the favour being called in; the enemy made to save the person in one book results in the subtle attack starting the next, the court case here results in the fae reaction there, and there… Events never stop happening, with consequences rolling along in the background of the character’s lives, even if it’s not the center of the plot! I wish I could do it half as well as her, and maybe by the time I get to as many books and series written, I’ll be getting there.

The sequel I’m battling with is having its own fun. No epic battles or great armies (too low a population), but when they got the terraforming restarted on their iceball, all that water has to go somewhere. And they’re in a very low-lying area. The protagonists have just found out that there’s a reason the original scientists named the area “Doggerland“…

What fun second-order consequences have pushed your own protagonists into sequels, or in books/movies you really enjoyed? (please add spoiler warning if necessary.)

(Image is the cover of CalExit, an anthology that was about exploring all the consequences, intended and unintended, of California actually declaring independence from the USA as threatened.)


  1. One of the stories in my most recent collection, Duel Visions, is “The Summer Of Love”. It’s set in a world where a man from 1968 was sent back in time to kill Hitler as a child.

    In the alternate history that I’m positing, though, the new chancellor of Germany remained allied with Stalin and my traveller returns to world dominated by a global Soviet state.

    The story is told by a soldier who has only known the alternate history and thinks of it as normal, The time traveller (who had served with the narrator in the old timeline during WWII) is trying to understand what happened and how his mission–that he expected to make things better–ended up ushering in a tyranny worse than what Hitler had envisioned.

  2. but what if their nomadic travels lead them through the lameplant that only grows on gold deposits? 😛

  3. I remember in one JAG episode, Harm shot a gun into the ceiling of a courtroom. For the next couple of years, consequences to that kept popping up. (I think at one point he almost was on the hook for thousands of dollars in water damages to the historic building.)

  4. And now I ponder a world where the sea is too {acidic, caustic, rough} for shipping until trans-oceanic FLIGHT is possible and what the results of that strangeness would be.

  5. Second and higher order consequences bring with them a question: “What is our cost of victory?”

    I’ve been having a lot of fun with my ridiculously overpowered protagonists. They keep running into the problem that although they are essentially all-knowing and all-powerful, they can’t DO anything. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, they have to be extremely careful where they put their feet.

    They also are collecting consequences. When you defeat the demon and live to fight another day, who will notice? What bigger Bad Guy will unleash some fresh and spicy Hell upon you?

    Example, running around Canada with robot spiders and embarrassing the local police got the attention of the Canadian military. Embarrassing the military got the attention of the Americans. Ignoring the Americans got the attention of the Chinese, the Russians, etc. All of that to avoid a war.

    Playing a joke on an interstellar empire instead of going to war got the attention of a semi-transcendent being. As George says to that one, “Shit rolls down hill, Great One. Who’s uphill from you?”

    This is where my brain goes these days. ~:D

    1. In the online RPG where I met my hubby, I used to play a minor Kami. She was an experiment in the idea of ‘world of cardboard’ crossed a bit with ‘touched by humanity.’

      I have her having to constantly assess how much strength or magic she needs to bring to bear in a given situation, even if she’s the one attacked. The less imaginative players got upset that she was so hard to beat, but couldn’t think of how to beat her (she could be trapped outside the solar system and she’d die because her link to her master and home was cut, for example; or a more mundane example would be to take someone she cared for hostage and put the hostage in a place where he or she cast no shadow – so she couldn’t find them)
      Was fun to play back then.

      1. You do run into the Superman problem very quickly. Superman can be boring because he can do anything, therefore every story includes kryptonite.

        How hard to hit is a more interesting problem. Usual answer is “not very hard”. If you can rip the guy’s head off with one punch like Saitama, you have to be careful not to.

        Also, hitting is surprisingly useless most of the time for getting what you want. So the Valkyries are using the power of smart-assery to achieve goals.

        And short skirts. ~:D

        1. Well, it used to, until they retconned him to be vulnerable to magic, and then realized that while something may not kill him, it can make him hurt a whole lot.

          Also they seem to have boosted the strength on some of the heroes, like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, to where they could slug it out with him.

  6. One thing to be wary of is resolving a book, and then letting the second-order consequences spawn a sequel that undermines the happy ending you gave it.

    Second-order consequences should at least be hinted at in the first book to spawn such a sequel.

    1. Meanwhile I’m working on a story in which the heroine deposes the king in the second chapter, when she’s seven — magic is involved — and it’s ALL second-order consequences.

  7. In the end of the last Familiars book, the protagonists close two gates, in part by using power from one to defeat the other. In the process, a damaged young woman loses her access to one of the things that had helped keep her sane. All ends well, Big Bad is defeated, right?

    But what if the beings in that “good” place decide that they need to check up on the damaged young woman? And to do that, go sideways in order to reach a different gateway that is still open? Yes, they do manage to contact Shoshana and help her, but… does the protagonist have a duty to close that door too? Because what else might decide to “check” on Shoshana?

    Your guess is better than mine.

  8. I really worked on this question…. Dick Francis wrote a book called Proof which is almost entirely second order consequences of the precipitating event. It was quite remarkable and good, but all takes place in one book. Laura Ingalls Wilder is not a good example since the sequels are precipitated by her growing older, ditto for Anne of Green Gables.

    Long ago I read a few Poldark books and probably don’t remember them quite correctly but I do remember quitting on them when at the end of each book the main characters would get together and then split at the beginning of the next. I reached total frustration; where’s a new idea?! What’s the point of the resolution if it’s just undermined immediately, as Mary commented upthread.

    Timothy Zahn wrote a set of six YA called Dragon and Thief. That had some second order consequences as the series progressed…

    Ah, here’s a good example. In the Harry Potter books Fred and George stuff some character into the vanishing cabinet in the third or fourth book and it seems like a throwaway action. But in book six the consequences of that prank are the penetration of Hogwarts by enemy action.

    1. What’s the point of the resolution if it’s just undermined immediately
      Yes. One of the things that drove me crazy about the show 24 was the way any good action was undermined at the end of the show just so you could have more episodes.
      I often said that if the characters in the show were half as smart as they were supposed to be, the show would be called 8.

  9. Dresden Files. Destroy the Red Court of vampires. Then disappear from the city you were protecting for months, ostensibky to keep it safe. Come back to find out there were other, darker things jn the shadows. Who are now firmly entrenched in your absence, and dislodging them is more difficult than it would havr been.

    Plus there’s the whole war with the reds that culminated jn their eventual destruction.

  10. I have a loose trilogy that’s currently mostly second order consequences. (First book is largely a re-telling of the Bearskin tale with the two other sisters imperiling themselves in ways other than suicide.) But the story itself is a second order effect: A Kingdom has lost a war. Another kingdom has won it. The main character is at loose ends because his side lost, his home burned and now belongs to the enemy, and he didn’t get paid enough to get him much of anywhere. The other two books in the series are sorting out some of the second order consequences of the first… Keeping the happily ever after for the main characters by shifting focus to secondary characters. If I do it right (not a guarantee) hopefully they’ll be interesting enough to keep the interest moving.

  11. Ohhhh, I did this in one of my books! (Daughter of Texas, BTW.) I didn’t want to write the agonizing death from tuberculosis of the heroine’s beloved husband – which fate had already been told in the Adelsverin Trilogy, so that was a done deal. Late one night, I had an inspiration, to make his death happen off stage — because he was bigamously married! He had a wife and child in Boston from whence he came originally, only it was a loveless marriage, and reasons …
    My editor/business partner was rather heartbroken over this, because he had seemed to be such an upright character. But it let me set up another plot, involving his granddaughter coming west half a century later and inadvertently discovering the connection to her grandfather’s other family ..
    And also a character to be the focus of the next novel … which will be about the build-up to and the experiences in the ACW…

  12. I’ve thought of two real world second order effects, one obvious and one obscure. The Indian wars in the West changed after the Civil War and were much more deadly, because the soldiers had become much more jaded. They had been fighting their neighbors, so too bad about someone more remote from them.

    I happen to read a blog from a shepherdess. She spent a lot of time (years) creating a flock that was parasite resistant so she didn’t constantly have to chemically treat her sheep. But the result was that one year, when the parasites got out of control, her flock suddenly went down. They could carry a really heavy load but there was a tipping point where the load got to be too much and then they couldn’t be treated effectively at all. She had to come up with a totally new way (not chemical and not genetic) to deal with the problem. Her solution eventually (through someone else’s mistake) caused some completely unexpected extra deaths in the flock from an entirely unrelated problem, although of course it saved most of the other sheep from the parasites. I hope I’ve explained this clearly. It was powerful when I was reading about it.

  13. Calexit was solely based on second order effects. Those are the ones that pols tend to forget to plan for/ignore advice on… And yay on the sequel! Bout damn time! 😀

  14. One of the things I came across was the idea of memory in serial fiction [comic books]. Sometimes things would be brought up or hinted at. Other times you could tell that they went back and looked at details in previous stories and spin a new story line from them.

Comments are closed.