Monday, 12 August 2013

Improving Cause and Effect

Every story is a series of events that hopefully lead from one to another. Something happens and because of that other actions need to be taken.

But even when thing logically follow on from one to the next, that doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting story. Just because there’s a good reason for what a character’s doing, that isn’t necessarily enough to make it worth reading about.

You can very easily get into a groove that turns into a rut. What the character needs to do next seems so obvious the writer doesn’t take a moment to consider whether that’s a good thing.

While real life reactions often need to be avoided because they make the story undramatic (you find a dead body, you phone the police and that’s the end of that) you also have to be wary of common fictional situations (you find a dead body, you decide to hunt down the killer).

Even though you have a cause (he killed my child!) and an effect (I will hunt him down and kill him!) that isn’t a normal reaction (unless you’re Liam Neeson, of course).

It can feel like an appropriate response because you’ve seen it so many times in other stories. Often with a convoluted justification for a sudden single-minded obsession.

But even if the character has an excellent reason to do the familiar thing, the reader doesn’t have to respect your well established cause and effect if it’s obvious or predictable.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a strong causal relationship between events in a story—there definitely should—but that alone won’t make a dull story entertaining.

It can becomes so obvious how things are going to pan out that in some cases writers forget to mention it on the page.

Jane is having trouble with a guy at work but the writer knows that the Creep is actually misunderstood and has his own problems, but he really likes Jane in a good and healthy way, as she’ll discover by the end of the story. Then one day Jane is in trouble and Creep comes to her rescue and so she discovers the truth about him... but hold on. If the meanest, most disagreeable guy at work who makes your life a misery suddenly turns up when you’re in trouble and offers to help are you just going to trust him?

If he seems smarmy and arrogant and sexist in the office, do you just think, “Let’s see where this leads”?

Of course, the writer knows it’s going to turn out all right, and to be honest so does the reader. Because these things always go the same way in these kinds of stories. But if you can get away with loose and vague cause and effect, the likelihood is that’s because it’s clichéd and predictable.

It isn’t just about sorting things out so it’s clear why the character is doing what they’re doing, it is also about making that cause and effect feel valid and engaging.

To do this requires stopping the narrative and considering what else the character might do in the current scenario. Why are they choosing this particular path? Is it because it was the first thing to come to mind? Because it’s what anyone would do in that situation? Because it’s what characters in this genre always do?

Those approaches can work, it’ll make sense, but they won’t lift a story above mediocrity.

Once you understand the need for cause and effect in story, the next step is to make those cause and effect relationships as interesting and powerful as possible.

The girl who accepts a lift from the office creep because her car broke down and it’s raining is a weak set up. If she’s desperate to get to her Dad’s hospital bed before he passes away, you might believe why she takes a chance.

And it’s not just the main character whose motivations need to be worked on. The Creep who’s horrible to the pretty girl in the office because he thinks she’s stuck up and mean won’t just pull over and offer her a lift because she’s standing by the side of the road. Again, very weak. But if he happened to overhear the phone call from the hospital, then he might.

Which brings up another side of cause and effect. What we think is the cause of something doesn’t always turn out to be so. In the above case I might not want the reader to know Creep’s reason for helping her until later. But that doesn’t mean I should leave a void and just move on, although this is what often happens in WiPs.

If it’s abnormal behaviour then the POV character would be aware of it and question it, either internally or out loud. And if that happened, Creep wouldn’t just change the subject or stare out of a window without answering, he’d lie. And what you end up with is people dancing around what they really mean and how they really feel: the basis of drama.

If you don’t want to reveal the reason for something you can’t just leave it out until later, you have to replace it with something else. A lie, a secondary explanation (that’s true, just not the whole truth) or some other form of misdirection.

Cause and effect can provide much more than basic reasons for actions, it can be used to generate a lot of the drama in a narrative. Why a character does what they do is one part of it. What other characters believe is the reason is another. The true reason is a third. The way the reasons change over the course of a story is yet one more.  Making an unexpected or unlikely reason feel believable is a trickier approach but one that can feel very satisfying if it’s pulled off.

But what it comes down to is looking at the causal relation between scenes and events and asking yourself, What else could happen here? 
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A lie sounds like a good way to make it more interesting.
As with any situation, you have to stop and think 'what if?' That can lead to a much better effect.

mooderino said...

@alex - it can be tempting to move on as soon as things make sense, but usually you get more if you dig a little deeper.

dolorah said...

It is hard to make all those events useful and interesting.


Denise Covey said...

I read recently that in between scenes...don't think 'And then...', think 'but'. That makes a big difference to a story.
Thanks for the post.

mooderino said...

@Donna - Can't argue with that.

@Denise - but then and therefore... is better than this then this then this.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Thanks for the reminder to go deeper.It's so easy to fall back on the cliched reactions.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - yvw

Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks for the tip/reminder to make things more interesting. The cause and effect in the story need not always make for an interesting read. They can look contrived if not done well. I agree with you that its important to make those cause and effect relationships as interesting and powerful as possible.

Kim Van Sickler said...

In a recent writing workshop I attended by Donald Maas, he had us take a scene and come up with a different way for it to unfold. Then disregard that and come up with another way. Then disregard that and come up with a third way. That was the story he wanted told.

Unknown said...

Kim, that was some great advice!

Super useful post, as usual, Mooderino :)

mooderino said...

@Rachna - as with any technique understanding the basics is only the first step.

@Kim - I'd love to do a workshop with Donald Maass, his ideas make a lot of sense.

@Damyanti - thanks.

Weaver said...

Great post. Sometimes motivations make sense to us because we want them to, not because they do to other people. Yay for betas willing to speak up!

Anna Mussmann said...

Good point! Stories that follow the (unrealistic) conventions of other stories may be acceptable to people who don't read much (and thus haven't seen those conventions as many times), but they sure feel stale to people who DO read a lot. Thinking about cause and effect is a good way to "sneak up" on your own story and test it for cliched conventions.

mooderino said...

@Donna - god bless the betas.

@Anna - can be tempting to settle for what you can get away with, but so much more rewarding to go a little deeper and come up with something unexpected.

Calisa Rhose said...

Interesting post and great points. One can never learn too much! Thanks. Tweeted.

mooderino said...

@Calisa - thanks very much!

PK HREZO said...

Great points, Moody! Motivations have to be very clear thruout, and doubts have to be questioned or we lose that respect for the characters. I like how you clarify cause and effect. Makes perfect sense.

mooderino said...

@Pk - cheers.

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