Almost everything in a story is the effect to some earlier cause. Indeed, in all of life, this same principle holds true.
You exist. Why? Because your parents…got a visit from the stork. Your eyes are brown. Why? Genetics. Normally you arrive early to work, but today you’re late? Why? Because the alarm didn’t go off because a storm hit last night while you were sleeping and killed the power.
Your personality may be completely different from that of your parents, but your ingrained traits are, in themselves, the cause for a whole host of other effects. Like the career you choose. The friends you keep. Why you react a certain way in response to some external stimulus. All these things, too, are affected by your life experience. (Human beings are complex.)
Even a glimpse into the universe points to a chain reaction of cause and effect. Light from distant galaxies is red shifted. Why? Because light is composed of waves. Because the wavelength determines the color observed. And because—if the source of light (e.g., star) is moving with respect to the observer—the waves will (seem to) be squished or stretched out depending on whether the star is getting closer or moving farther away. But why is there a red shift? The universe is expanding. Why? The Big Bang set it all in motion.
From these examples, we can recognize a few different elements of fiction that are guided by cause and effect.
(1) Governments, technologies, physical laws, and rules of magic
Just as the physical universe is governed by certain laws, so too whatever world your particular characters happen to inhabit must be governed by consistent laws. If your novel involves magical creatures, don’t change their abilities as the story progresses. If you’ve imagined a futuristic technology, make sure you’ve clearly defined its capabilities, then stick to them. If your story hinges on the mystery of what your magical creatures (or technologies) can do, don’t fret. Just be aware that readers need something logical they can grab onto until the newest revelation occurs.
(2) Personality constraints
Plot is a complex interplay between external events and character decisions (i.e., actions). Perhaps your plot is begging you to take the story in a particular direction… But if that change requires your protagonist (or antagonist) to behave in uncharacteristic ways, you’re better off considering other options.
The bottom line here is that characters must be consistent. If they do change (as we expect), their behavior should shift gradually… and only because the plot has taught them a lesson. In other words, don’t let your protagonist act uncharacteristically confrontational (or whatever) just because it heightens the drama.
(3) External action and consequence
From the smallest fragment of a scene to the broad expanse of character arc and plot, cause and effect permeates good fiction.
The central conflict of every novel, for example, is founded on the tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some consequence (i.e., conflict) ensues. Plot is, by its very definition, a sequence of events linked by cause and effect.
On a smaller scale, characters are always interacting with the world around them. Although character personalities will differ, their response to any given external stimulus always follows a predictable sequence, as outlined by Swain:
- Automatic Physiological/Visceral Feeling (e.g., a rush of adrenaline)
- Reflex/Jerk Reactions (e.g., screaming, jumping in fear, lashing out on instinct)
- Rational thoughts, speech, and actions
For example, you’re leading a friend through a peaceful forest when all of a sudden the tickling stickiness of a web envelops your face and the creeping crawl of eight tiny legs works its way up your neck. You may not demonstrate each of the reactions in the sequence above. But if you do, they ought to occur in the following order:
First, your heart launches into your throat (physiological reaction). Then, you emit a high-pitched screech as you frantically claw at your neck and face (jerk reaction). Finally, as soon as you’re safely spider-free, you turn to your gawking companion, blush, and sheepishly explain what just happened (rational speech).
Any change in the order will likely come across to readers as being unrealistic. (For example: You turn to your friend. “I just ran into a spider web. Man, I hate spiders. They totally freak me out. In fact, I can feel one crawling up my neck this very instant. Hang on a sec.” Then you shriek and frantically flick the offending arachnid as your heart slams against your ribcage.)
Cause and effect is important enough I’m sure we’ll discuss it again eventually. But for now… What do you think? Is everything in a story the effect to some earlier cause? Are there blatant exceptions to that rule? Join the discussion below for a chance to win a 2500-word critique.