Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (Cause and effect), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
Story, like life, is driven by emotion, but it's ordered by logic. The brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect. If this happens, it will cause that to happen. What makes us different from all other species is that we are wired to take it one step further by trying to understand why this caused that, and better, not only anticipate what might happen next, but to figure out how to change it to our advantage. Stories allow us to test drive those possibilities without having to actually take the risk.
It's as close as we can get to having our cake and eating it too. When a story doesn't follow a clear cause and effect trajectory, the brain doesn't know what to make of it because we have no idea what things are meant to add up to. This can result in a feeling of physical distress, not to mention the very real desire to chuck the book at the window. The good news is that story-wise, cause and effect boils down to a simple mantra of if-then-therefore.
It's what drives the story forward. If I call in sick one more time, then I'll get fired, therefore I better get up out of this cozy bed. If you think of your story's cause and effect trajectory as a row of dominoes, you'll see that once one falls, the others will naturally follow. The thing to keep in mind when crafting your story's trajectory is that there are two levels of cause and effect which always work in tandem. Plot-wise, cause and effect plays out on the surface level.
One event logistically triggers the next. This is the what. For example, Betty was late for work on her first day, therefore Betty was fired. Story-wise, cause and effect plays out on a deeper internal level, that of meaning this is the why. It reveals why Betty was late for work even though she desperately needs that job. Since stories are about how what happens affects someone, it's knowing the why that allows you to figure out the what.
The key thing to remember--and something that writers really often forget--is that simply seeing the surface cause and effect isn't all that interesting. What makes it interesting is how it's affecting your protagonist, which means we need to know the internal effect it's having on her in the moment. This is what show, don't tell actually means. That is, don't tell me the protagonist is sad, show me why is she sad? Very often that means show us her train of thought in the moment, especially when her expectations aren't being met.
And hey, that's what stories are about, what we do when our expectations aren't met. The beauty of mapping out your story's cause and effect trajectory is that it helps you identify deadly digressions that can derail your story. What's a digression? It's anything we don't need to know for the story to make sense. That is, anything that's not part of the cause and effect trajectory. One way to root out digressions is by using what I like to call the "And so" test.
You can use it when you're writing, after each paragraph, each page, each chapter, whenever. Simply ask yourself, And so, why does the reader need to know this? What's the point? How does it further the story? If I cut it out, is there anything in the story that wouldn't make sense? If the answer is no, out it goes. It's as simple as that. After all, the reader is wired to hunt for causal connections. And when there aren't any to be made, we tend to hunt for another book to read.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots