Wednesday, October 16

Good Writing: Cause and Effect



Suspension of disbelief is crucial to crafting an immersive story. If readers don’t believe in the story, they won’t keep reading. So how do we do this? How do we wave our pen and make readers fall under our spell and into our world of words?

In my opinion, the answer has to do with patterns. Patterns of action and reaction.

Patterns of Reality


There is a pattern to how we humans react to things.

For example, when I work, I’m off in a world of my own, if someone creeps up behind me and yells, “Boo!” (and, yes, this has happened!) I’ll scream like a little girl, only it’ll be louder and more embarrassing. And then everyone laughs. Well, I’m glad that I was entertaining!

Let’s say (as I just did) I were to write about this event and I described it like this: I screamed and someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Confusing, right? Of course! It’s out of order. Or if I left out the part about my screaming and just wrote: Someone said, “Boo!” and everyone laughed. Readers would be left scratching their heads.

Writing a good story is all about being true to REAL patterns of action, it is about understanding how we react to stimuli. And being true to this has everything to do with cause and effect.

I’m going to come back to this, below, but first let’s take a brief look at what a story is.

Stories Aren’t Real Life, They’re Better


Stories must make more sense than real life. In real life our loved ones become ill for no reason -- at least no reason anyone understands. But if this happens in fiction, readers become grumpy. After all, there is a very human intelligence behind the story: you! You’ve created the story world so you should know all the whys and hows of anything that significantly affects your characters. You don’t have to write all that information into the story -- readers should only be told what they want to be told -- but you need to know it.

Keep in mind that the kind of fiction I’m talking about is the sort that one would tell around a campfire. You want listeners to hang on your every word and leave satisfied, you want to give them something to beat back the darkness that lies in wait for us all. They need something to hope for, something to aspire to.

Of course, there are MANY other kinds of stories -- there are tragedies, and those are, unfortunately, equally true of human experience, but that's NOT the kind of story I'm talking about. That’s not the kind of story I tell my friends to keep the existential darkness at bay.


Cause and Effect


Every plot development must have a cause and each cause must have an effect. Although, sure, sometimes this cause occurs off the page in the deep background of the story.

In fiction, one thing must lead logically into another. You can make anything happen in your story, you just have to figure out a cause for it. In fiction, unlike life, there is no blind luck. Yes, your hero can begin an adventure because of a coincidence, but they can never ever achieve any of their goals because of a coincidence. (I think perhaps the only exception to this is in a comedy when the hero adopts the persona of The Fool.)

Recreating, respecting, the patterns of real interactions is part of what allows readers to suspend belief. This is part of what makes the story world make sense. It is part of what makes the story world believable. Only believable story worlds grab readers -- it can be as insanely futuristic or fantastic as you like, but if the characters don’t react, don’t behave, in a credible, believable way, your story won’t grab them.

Stimulus and Response


Let's drop down a level. Bob and Joe are fighting. Bob throws a punch and Joe ducks. Joe throws a punch and his fist connects with Bob’s face. Bob falls to the floor and is out for the count. Now, that’s not great literature (I’ll leave that to you!) but it’s understandable. You don’t have trouble picturing what’s going on.

Walking through this: There’s an observable stimulus -- Bob’s fist -- Joe has a reaction to this stimulus, he ducks. Then there’s a response, Joe’s fist -- Bob reacts to this by getting hit in the face and falling to the ground.

A scene consists of linked stimulus-response pairs. I’ll go into this more, below, but before we do that let me touch on the topic of internalizations.

Let’s do this using the simple example I just gave. Let’s say that Bob is a LOT bigger than Joe. Bob tries to hit Joe (stimulus). Joe knows that if Bob hits him he’s going down and never getting back up, which is why he decided to cheat and put weights in his gloves (internalization). Joe ducks the punch (response). Joe tries to punch Bob (stimulus). Bob chuckles to himself and thinks, This is so cute, like I would be worried about this mosquito (internalization). Joe’s (illegally) weighted fist connects with Bob’s head and he goes down for the count.

Again, not great literature, but it makes sense. You can visualize what’s happening. Here, there’s an observable stimulus, Bob’s fist flying through the air toward Joe’s head. Joe has an internal reaction to the stimulus, he reflects that this is life or death and that more-or-less explains why he has resorted to cheating. Then there is an observable response, Joe knocks Bob out.

That was just an example -- yes, it’s great for action scenes -- but the pattern applies to everything. Honestly, this is one of the most useful principles I’ve ever studied.

Tips for Writing Prose That Feels Real


We’ve covered some of this above, but I’m going to spell it out, so it will be easy for us to reference, later:

1. Stimulus


- A thing that causes something else
- The stimulus must be external
- The stimulus can be a physical action, like throwing a punch.
- The stimulus can be something spoken.

2. Internalization


- What the character thinks or feels in response to the stimulus.
- Sometimes this is deep narration -- which is intimately related to Free Indirect Speech or Discourse -- but sometimes it is just a sentence or two in the narrators voice that communicates how the character is feeling or thinking. The essential thing is to show how the character responds internally.
- This reaction doesn’t have any physicality, we can’t see or hear or touch it. We must rely upon the narrator.
- Internalizations are optional. If you’re writing from a strict third-person perspective and you don’t want to dip into any of your character’s minds, you might not use them. (You could write something like: Bob hit Joe. It seemed like Joe cringed in pain. Joe hit Bob.)

3. For every stimulus, there must be a response


- If there are any hard and fast rules in writing -- and there really aren’t many other than “Writers must read and write” -- it is that every cause must create an effect and every effect must have a cause. You’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun? This is the admonition that a gun in the first act must be used in a subsequent act. This is the same idea. If you introduce something that seems significant, there has to be a payoff, otherwise, why have it in the story? Everything in a story must pull its weight, everything must create some sort of (significant) effect. And an effect is only significant if it affects a character in pursuit of a goal that is linked (in some way, however tenuous) to the protagonist’s main goal.
- The response must be caused by a stimulus.
- The response, like the stimulus, must be external.
- Generally, the response must be IMMEDIATE. As soon as Bob throws a punch, Joe needs to either get hit in the face or duck.

Internalization


As I’ve said, every action is really STIMULUS -- INTERNALIZATION -- RESPONSE, although the internalization is optional.

I’ll write more about internalization in another post, but for now just think of it as anything your character thinks or feels. So, for example:
Diane glared at Jill. (Stimulus)

Scared, Jill stiffened. I wonder if she found out I kissed her boyfriend, she thought. (Internalization)

Diane stalked up to Jill -- if she’d been a cartoon character, steam would have been coming out of her ears -- and punched Jill in the jaw. (Response)
That’s it for now! If you liked this post, please consider supporting me over at Patreon.

As always, keep writing!

Notes


The material in this post was inspired by two authors: Jack M. Bickham's excellent book Scene & Structure and Dwight V. Swain's incredibly useful book, Techniques of a Successful Writer. I can't recommend both of these books highly enough.

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