Cause & Effect in Fiction

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. mikado-1013877_1280-cause-and-effect4

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.

sky space telescope universe

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.

Cause and Effect Mind Map. You can think of “Character 1” (teal) as the hero and “Character 2” (red) as the antagonist. Or you can think of them as hero and heroine. Interaction takes place where teal and red meet. Note that the color of the box designates the character to which that particular “property” applies. For example, Character 1’s wound may lead him or her to keep secrets, which in turn may result in Character 2’s misguided action (since they’re acting on wrong beliefs). The purple boxes represent external events that could affect either character. And, yes, this is terribly nerdy, but it was fun to contemplate. (Get a closer look here.)

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.

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Lara Storm spends at least half her life within the musty vaults of her brain, constructing new worlds and engaging fictional friends. Since winning the Illinois Young Authors Contest in middle school, she took a detour through graduate school and spent three years as an instructor of geology at the college level before completing her first novel in 2013. From caving, to hiking, to whitewater kayaking, Lara has been involved in a number of exciting outdoor activities, some of which crop up in her writing. She has written songs, created recipes for brewing beer, and enjoys dabbling in photo manipulation. When she’s not writing (or chasing an energetic toddler around the house)—she enjoys critiquing and mentoring other writers. Connect with her here:

4 thoughts on “Cause & Effect in Fiction”

  1. I love your examples of cause and effect! The pictures of it out of order are great because you can feel, not only how ridiculous it is, but also how sluggish the writing becomes. Thanks for this. Hmm, I seem to remember someone pointing out cause and effect errors on in my writing. Your explanations and examples are so much more fun than Dwight Swain!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked the example. I still get a kick out of it every time I read it. (That is to say, *ahem,* I laugh at my own jokes.) And I agree… Dwight Swain is something of an acquired taste. I learned quite a lot from his book but it is pretty dense.


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