Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Cause and effect), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
Let's see how this works with a story we probably all know, Romeo and Juliet. First, what do they want? They want to be together, preferably out in the open. Every decision they make is based on that one single overarching objective. Think of their internal mantra as if I do this, then I'll overcome the obstacle that's keeping us apart, therefore we'll be together. The external if-then-therefore logic plays out against this internal logic all the way through.
The thing is we humans are wired to assume that each little thing we do will solve the big problem. And how often does that really happen? Usually never, particularly not in a good story, which of course means the therefore we get is almost always something other than what we expect. The more things get messed up, the harder Romeo and Juliet try to bend the external world to their internal desire. With that in mind, let's see what's going on in Verona.
Romeo meets Juliet, and they fall in love. Because of the internal logic we discussed, they instantly understand the external cause and effect equation that now governs them. If they can figure out a way for their families to reconcile, then they can be together, therefore they hatch a plan to wage peace. All this sounds good, except for the fact that the therefore isn't going to turn out exactly as they hope. It begins like this.
If Romeo refuses to fight Juliet's kinsmen, who has challenged him to a dual, then the family feud will end, therefore everyone will kiss and make up and be delighted that Romeo and Juliet already got secretly married. What actually happens is that Romeo ends up killing Juliet's kinsman, and the best laid plan ends up becoming the worst possible nightmare. Now the equation looks like this. If Romeo stays in Verona with Juliet's family hungry for his blood, then he will be killed himself, therefore he has to flee the city.
More complications ensue as each therefore catapults them into another gut-wrenching decision, especially when Juliet's parents suddenly betroth her to Paris. If Juliet doesn't act fast, she will end up officially married to Paris, then she'll never be allowed to see Romeo again, therefore she hatches a plan to thwart the marriage and reunite with Romeo. What's the plan? If Juliet pretends to die, then she will get out of the whole Paris marriage thing, therefore with a little help from the Friar, she can rendezvous with Romeo in the family crypt and they will find a way to live happily ever after.
This is when things take a genuinely tragic turn because there was one bit of if-then-therefore logic that no one contemplated. If Romeo doesn't get the letter the Friar sent telling him about Juliet's plan to fake her death, then when he finds out she is dead, he will believe it's true. Therefore, he will lose his desire to live, and after smooching her still warm lips chug-a-lug a vial of poison, this if-then-therefore logic-- even though it's based on facts that are dead wrong-- propels the story to its tragic end.
If Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo dead, then she will want to die herself, therefore she will take the happy dagger from his belt and do herself in. And finally, if-then-therefore logic propels the bittersweet resolution of their families. If our children could love each other this much, then maybe we should stop this bloodshed, therefore we'll reconcile. Better late than never I guess. But for writers, what's so exhilarating about looking at story this way is that you soon begin to recognize the if-then-therefore pattern all over, and things begin to fall into place naturally.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots