Tuesday, January 22, 2013

4 Three Ways Cause and Effect Can Build Your Story

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I just finished an eight-week workshop with Cheryl Klein that gave me the opportunity to analyze the bookmaps of my last book and my WIP. The back-to-back process was a huge eye-opener and made me realize that most of my problem scenes all had vague goals or incomplete causality. Things were happening, but they happened to my characters. They still had long-term goals, sure, but most  were what Cheryl Klein called "and also" scenes. Scenes where, for the characters, not much changed emotionally or literally. Events happened around them and they took part in those events. The events were interesting, sure, but they weren't vital. They learned information, but they could have learned that information in many other ways. Head. Desk. Time to cut.

Cause and effect is the root of fiction. It's also the flip side of looking at goal and outcome. On the macro level, causality links events, and on a micro level, it forms the stimulus and response pairs that form how our characters respond to events. Cause and effect, goal and outcome, stimulus and response--these are what form the impetus of story and motivate characters to engage with what is happening in believable and interesting ways. Making cause and effect vital is a huge part of making sure that every scene changes the outcome of the story overall.

Jack M. Bickham does a great job laying down some guidelines in SCENE AND STRUCTURE:

  • Stimulus must be external--that is, action or dialogue, something that could be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
  • Response must also be external in the same way.
  • For every stimulus, you must show a response.
  • For every desired response, you must provide a stimulus.
  • Response usually must follow stimulus at once.
  • When response to stimulus is not logical on the surface.
For most of those statements, we could substitute cause and effect and end up with a valid guideline, too. The difference is, I think, that readers are more tolerant of when they find out the cause and effect relationship than they are about seeing the response to a stimulus.

As I was going through my bookmaps, I found it helpful to examine each scene from three different perspectives: lack, cause, and goal.

The Lack of Something

There's an old proverb that Madeleine L'Engle used in The Wind and the Door, the sequel to A WRINKLE IN TIME. It's also used in the movie TOKYO DRIFT. In each case, it illustrates the cascading effect of something seemingly inconsequential.
  • 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 a message the battle was lost.

  • For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. 

  • And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
In essence, this same relationship has to exist in the novel, beginning with the inciting incident. Whether you want to phrase it as a "lack" or a goal doesn't matter as much as the fact that there is something that happens that causes something else to happen, and that we understand why.

BeCAUSE of Something

To illustrate this, let me rewrite the events in the proverb and turn them into an actual story. Let's say that Fiona is a girl in a castle threatened by an advancing army. The castle protects a critical road. With every able bodied male engaged in fighting the enemy, Fiona's father sends her through enemy lines with information for the King and a plea for help.
  • Because Fiona must stay off the more traveled road, her horse loses a nail from its shoe.
  • Because she can't stop on that road, the whole shoe comes off.
  • Because she can't find a blacksmith, the horse goes lame.
  • Because the horse goes lame, Fiona cannot get out of the way of the rebel army fast enough.
  • Because she cannot get out of the way fast enough, she is captured.
  • Because she is captured, the message is found by the enemy.
  • Because the message reaches the enemy and not the King, help doesn't reach the castle. 

  • Because the castle falls to the enemy, the enemy can now march down the crucial road and conquer the entire kingdom.
Striving for Something

The problem with the story above is that it still leaves too many questions unanswered. As a writer, I still need to understand the motivation and the cause and effect of the story both on a macro and a micro level. It helps me to look at that same scenario as a series of scene goals and complications.

Story Question: Can Fiona get the message to the king?
Complication: The enemy is already surrounding most of the city and cutting off the exits.

Scene Goal: Fiona needs to get around the enemy army.
Complication: She takes a road that skirts the marsh and the mud sucks a nail out of her horse's shoe.

Scene Goal: She wants to circle around the ranks of the enemy before rejoining the main road.
Complication: She doesn't stop until the horse's shoe comes off.

Scene Goal: She wants to find a blacksmith.
Complication: The horse goes lame before she can find one.

Scene Goal: She wants to steal a horse.
Complication. She is captured.

Scene Goal: She wants to destroy the message before the enemy finds it.
Complication: Dropping it on the road leads to it being found.

Etcetera etcetera, to quote the King of Siam. But now I am going to digress.

A Plea Against Gratuitous and Easy Violence

Obviously, the story I just sketched would be a period piece. It would be very easy to jump in here and say that the enemy finds the message by searching her. If the mc was a boy, I would go there. But she's a girl. They wouldn't necessarily find it right away if she had it hidden in her voluminous skirts. They wouldn't necessarily even suspect her of carrying a message. I have to think of the time and the circumstances, put myself in the shoes of my character and her captors.

A lot of writers, too many, would immediately jump to a rape scene here, or at least a scene where Fiona is stripped or violated and the message is found and the battle is lost. I'm not going to go into this topic deeply, because Maggie Stiefvater did that beautifully in her post last week on Literary Rape.

Instead, I'm going to throw out an alternative. As writers, our job is to think of what drives our characters--all of them. We need to consider all the possibilities and make the most dramatic choice—and that doesn't involve having things happen to the protag. Rather, it involves having our protagonist drive the action. To do that, we need to consider the dramatic effect of having the character make a choice that leads to her own downfall and then battling back from it.

Goal, Outcome, and Change

If I look at goal and complication and combine it with the perspectives I gained into cause and effect by examining lack, outcome, and change, I end up with a more complete story.

Inciting/exciting incident: The enemy at the gates.

Goal: Fiona needs to get out of town.
Motivation: Get the message to the king.
Complication: To avoid the enemy, she has to take the muddy road that skirts the marsh.
Outcome: The mud sucks a nail out of her horse's shoe.
Change: The shoe is loose, slowing her down.

Goal: Take a shortcut back to the main road.
Motivation: To avoid capture and make up the time she has lost.
Complication: The terrain is even worse than on the previous route.
Outcome: The shoe comes off.
Change. The horse is starting to limp.

Goal: Walk a while to rest the horse.
Motivation: She can't make it to the king without a horse.
Complication: She is slowed even further and encounters something—wild animal, human, deserter, something she wouldn't have encountered if she was still on horseback.
Outcome: She has to get back on the horse.
Change: The horse goes lame.

Goal: Find a blacksmith.
Motivation: She can't get to the king on a lame horse.
Complication: There are enemy soldiers in the village.
Outcome: She can't stay while her horse is reshod and she can't let anyone see her.
Change: She decides to steal a horse.

Goal: To steal a horse.
Motivation: To continue on her journey.
Complication: Someone sees her and raises an alarm.
Outcome: She is captured.
Change: She and the message are both in the hands of the enemy.

Goal: To avoid having the enemy read the message.
Motivation: To avoid being killed as a spy and preserve the potential for escape.
Complication: A soldier sees her drop the message and kick it out of the way.
Outcome: The message is read by the enemy.
Change: She and the message are both taken to the enemy commander.

As I originally wrote this, this could have been the beginning of the end. But now, knowing Fiona better, I realize she's nowhere close to done. And the capture of the castle isn't the end of the story either. Because the way I wrote the motivation said she needs to get the message to the king.

What happens after Fiona is captured depends on the type of book I want to write. Mostly, it depends on Fiona though. Who she is internally will dictate how she reacts externally. When her horse lost a shoe, she could have sat down and given up. But that would have been a boring story.

Examining all the different ways that events hinge together gradually reveals more about any protagonist, her surroundings, and the drama of the situation. Knowing how the protag thinks about events and how she responds to them is what brings the story into life and focus, at least for me. It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to discover about a story even after many drafts. Examining the prism of the novel from different angles reveals increasing depths and beautiful possibilities.

What about you? How do you connect the dots? Do you outline events, or do you outline motive and goal? How do you track cause and effect?


  1. So awesome that you took a class with Cheryl. I saw her at a conference and she's brilliant. I try to do the cause and effect thing but somethings I think I force it to make it work in my plot when maybe it's not really cause and effect, if that makes sense.

    1. She is brilliant. I thought I was going to shoot myself doing the book map because it was so hard--and I had outlines and goals and the whole nine yards. I'd never tackled anything as hard, but her workshop and all the techniques and tools she gave us really brought clarity and logic to the process of editing and planning.

  2. I also went to a retreat led by Cheryl and really felt she gave me a new perspective on structure and character development. I enjoyed this article on Cause and Effect... it's just what I needed to think about right now as I dive back into revision of my WIP. It will really help me focus my editing. Thanks!

    1. A retreat with Cheryl Klein must have been amazing! I would love to do something like that. I'm still going back over her lecture notes and finding great stuff in there. Good luck with your WIP! :)


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)