Short stories that have chain reactions
May 15, 2019 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for examples of short stories where the central character triggers a chain reaction of events unbeknownst to them, which ends up eventually coming back to haunt/alter the protagonist.
posted by storybored to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Harlan Ellison, The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge
posted by holborne at 8:30 AM on May 15, 2019

Not a short story, but inspired by a true incident: Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.
Again, not a short story, and in this case the protagonist is recollecting her past: Ian McEwan's Atonement.
And this short story is a classic "knowledge gained too late" scenario: Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations.
posted by TrishaU at 9:13 AM on May 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I believe the canonical response may be Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder.
posted by mwhybark at 9:29 AM on May 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, there is a minor character Agrajag who has the misfortune to be killed by Arthur Dent every time he is reincarnated (say as a fly that gets swatted or an ant that is stepped on). Arthur has no idea until Agrajag finally emerges in a powerful form determined to kill Arthur in revenge.
[Douglas Adams : Life, the Universe and Everything]
posted by w0mbat at 9:31 AM on May 15, 2019

I believe the canonical response may be Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder.
posted by mwhybark at 9:29 AM on May 15 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]

... which I always thought was he origin of the phrase "the butterfly effect", but apparently this is a common misconception and not really the case.
posted by matildaben at 9:53 AM on May 15, 2019

You foolishly failed to specify good short stories: Poppa Needs Shorts.
posted by jamjam at 10:23 AM on May 15, 2019

Stacy Aumonier's Where Was Wych Street in which an argument at a bar triggers a series of events that grow and grow.

excerpt from Wikipedia "...Another example of this type of plot is "One thing Leads to Another," in which a bacon-rind thrown out a window leads to the fall of the government."
posted by vacapinta at 10:57 AM on May 15, 2019

This is called 'For Want of a Nail" after the Poor Richard poem:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the message was lost;
For want of the message, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Here's the TV Tropes page with a lot of examples.
posted by bq at 11:11 AM on May 15, 2019

Not a short story, but: if I remember correctly, the murtlap-tentacle subplot of Order of the Phoenix matches what you're describing. It runs roughly as follows (spoilers ahoy):

-hermione objects to fred/george's latest scheme, which involves experimental magical snacks designed to induce temporary sickness, which she deems irresponsible and just generally a bad idea
-unbeknownst to her, fred/george can't actually market their inventions in any case, because one of them has a side-effect of causing permanent boils "in a place we don't show to the general public" (i.e. she was right all along)
-meanwhile, harry gets corporal punishment; hermione prescribes a healing potion made of murtlap tentacles
-later on, another student (a friend of fred/george? I think?) gets the same punishment, prompting harry to pass along the murtlap-tentacle idea
-the other student discovers that the recipe heals the punishment damage and also heals the boils from the enchanted snacks
-the other student passes hermione's recipe to fred/george
-fred/george patch their last outstanding issue and push to production in the next book
-I don't think hermione ever actually finds out what she's wrought though
posted by queen anne's remorse at 4:49 PM on May 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Although novels and not a short story, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten are good examples
posted by el_presidente at 1:19 AM on May 16, 2019

Can music scratch the itch? The one that comes to mind is Joe Diffie's catchy country song Third Rock from the Sun (link goes to craptastic official video including blessedly brief stupid robot voice at the beginning), which is circular. Here are the lyrics so you can determine if you want to listen to the song if you don't know it already:

She walks into Smokey's one hip at a time
Like a broken field runner slippin' through the line
He likes the way she looks so he calls the little wife
Says "Don't wait up for me I'll be workin' late tonight"
Wife hangs up the phone, bursts into tears
Calls her sister up and cries "Get over here"

Sister tells her boyfriend, "Be back in awhile"
Boyfriend wants a beer, the store is just a mile
He leaves the motor running he'll only be a minute
His car drives away with teenagers in it
The driver tells his buddies, "Got one life to live"
They scream into the night "Let's get it over with"

Chorus: Cause and effect, chain of events
All of the chaos makes perfect sense
When you're spinning round, things come undone
Welcome to Earth 3rd rock from the Sun

The kid guns the gas, the car starts to swerve
Heads for a semi truck, jumps the curb
Truck hits a Big Boy in the Shoney's parking lot
And flies through the air, takes out the bank clock
Clock strikes a light pole, transformer sparks
Lines go down, town goes dark

Waitress calls the cops, says she saw it all
Swears a giant alien has landed at the mall
Cops ring up the mayor says there's panic in the streets
"We hate to wake you up but we can't find the chief"
Mayor says "Use your head if he ain't in his car
He's hiding from his wife, down at Smokey's Bar"

posted by carmicha at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2019

Highly, highly recommend "Story of your life" by Ted Chiang. It was adapted into the film Arrival, which was on ok adaptation, but the short story is itself a masterpiece. The first sentence is the start of the chain of events, which culminates in the story ending back on the first sentence again, but the reader only at the very end understanding the implication of this chain of events. It's truly incredible.
posted by weed donkey at 4:57 PM on May 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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