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On Cause and Effect

Plot may be the bones of the story, but cause and effect are the muscles and sinews.

Very often new writers fundamentally misunderstand, or ignore completely, cause and effect in their stories because they believe that the plot can simply stem from fictionalized versions of their own lives. When the author neglects cause and effect though, the door to fictional meandering opens to a room of lost readers.

Plot may be the bones of the story, but cause and effect are the muscles and the sinews. If the actions of characters are ignored and not followed by reactions from other characters, then the story is simply a list of actions done by fictional beings that mean nothing and lead to nothing. If a story is shaped this way, then it is likely that a reader will move on to something else.

In fiction, that path forward is found when characters are forced to make decisions.

For example, say we have a character named Ed who is working in a highly bureaucratic role for a government agency. Ed begins to see that the agency is not running efficiently and that the citizens serviced by the industry are suffering because of this. Ed investigates the situation and finds that deeply ingrained systemic corruption is to blame. Ed’s discovery (cause) means that he has a decision to make (effect). In fiction, that path forward is found when characters are forced to make decisions. Let’s say that Ed chooses to do something about his discovery:

Ed Can:

  • Report his findings to authorities within the system.

  • Bring his findings to the press.

  • Seek to report his findings to higher authorities above the system.

  • Work to obtain a share of the corruption’s gain.

All of the above are effects of Ed’s discovery. From these effects, new causes are created and can be followed with effects of their own. Let’s use the example of Ed bringing his findings to the press. If he goes to the local newspaper (say this story is based in a large, influential city), then any number of the following things may happen:

  • His story is ignored, leading him to doubt his own belief in the issue.

  • His story is ignored, leading him to consider possible co-corruption with the media outlet.

  • His story is welcomed and pursued, leading him to heroism within his community.

  • His story is welcomed and pursued, leading to a public attack on his character by his workplace organization.

Cause and effect are your story’s conflict engines.

Above are a few of the possible effects of his pursuit (cause). Once a creative choice is made using one of the above, more effects will certainly flow from the effect. Let’s look at the example where Ed’s story is ignored and he begins to doubt himself:

When the media rejects his story, Ed may begin to believe that he does not have the full story anyway, and that he may be overreacting. This creates a massive amount of conflict within him, and he begins to doubt what he knows to be true. From this friction, or conflict (called Man v. Self Conflict in fiction) the character will begin to change and develop, advancing both the plot and the character development of your story. Cause and effect are your story’s conflict engines, powering the narrative forward naturally by their interplay.

If you remain effective throughout your story, you will eventually reach a situation where a final solution is necessary (though there are many examples of good fiction written without this solution). This is where your domino-ing cause and effect train will finalize, bringing the story to an end.

When your first draft is complete, it is important to review your story multiple times for logical errors in your cause and effect. This is hard for most writers to do, and is often an instance where a developmental editor will do your story a ton of good. The biggest symptom of an author's misuse or misunderstanding of cause and effect is plot holes, which are sometimes missed by the author but always discovered by the reader.

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