Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I'd Like to Introduce You to My Friends "Cause" & "Effect"

Having trouble pinning down an agent?  Certain your premise is a winner, but struggling to get anyone to read long enough to see it?

One thing that's utterly crucial for first-time novelists is suspension of disbelief.  The reader has to fall into your world and follow your story with zero "Really?" moments.  I think two things contribute to opening a book in a way that draws the reader in this way:

- Minimal backstory
- Maximum cause and effect.

A few weeks ago I posted advice from Taylor Mali suggesting every writer had to base every word they wrote in the physical world.  To my mind the most important thing he said was:

"...Don't expect anyone to listen to your advice and ignore your examples..."

I think a common misconception is that Cause and Effect are plotting devices: Love + Jealousy = Intrigue.  Rage + Obstacle = Murderous Intent.  Lust + Time = Love, etc - that if we simply put the right elements in a room together, we have created cause and effect.

While there's some basic foundational truth there, cause and effect goes much, much deeper.

Real, day to day life is driven by cause and effect.  Every move, every decision, is rooted in cause.  And every action creates effect.

To wit:
I have a manuscript to finish, so I write.  I am hungry, I eat.  I love my husband, I pick up his dry-cleaning.  My son runs a fever, I make a doctor's appointment....

Simple, right?

Let's take it down another level...

I have a hunger to be a published writer - I read books about the craft of fiction, study the advice of those who've achieved what I am aiming for.  I want my characters to be realistic - I observe the life and feelings of those around me.  I need an agent and a publisher - I query, and submit, and edit and wait...
But it goes deeper than that too:

I am inherently driven by a need to prove myself - to those detractors who, in my junior high and high school years told me I was nothing, hated, ugly and worthless; to the university professors who told me I was ill-disciplined, untalented, never going to be good enough; and to the adults who have (and do, and will) inwardly scoff at the idea I could ever be a success, because "She's just Aimee.  She's normal.  She's nothing special."

So I don't just write, I strive.

"Cause" can be anything from an unexpected phone call, to car crash, to a harsh word from a parent when the character was five. 

"Effect" is demonstrated in every detail from getting dressed in the morning, to one character setting out to murder another.

Really good writing doesn't just let cause hang in the wind, whipping the characters too and fro.  Really good writing delves deep.  It lets every detail have a point and gives every character intent a foundation.  Events and actions, big and small, are twined and tangled until the ultimate moment when every single event and intent collide in a cacophony of Effects.

The reader heaves a sigh of relief, not simply because the Hero has won the day, but because when they look back they can clearly see every action and reaction logically drawn from and pointing to this moment.  Emotions have been spent, actions have had consequences, now reactions will end the day.

Dig deeper, friends.  In yourself and in your characters.  And watch brilliance unfold.

Your Turn: What comes to mind when you think of 'cause and effect'?  Does the concept enter your writing process?  


  1. Very good points. And I've observed that you have to lay out some form of this internal motivation, to the point where the reader not only understands why the hero(heroine) did what they did, but actually is cheering for them to make that decision.

  2. When I think of cause and effect, I think of those stupid little worksheets that kids have to do in second grade to learn the difference. (Quite frankly, I still have to sit back and say "because this happened, here's the effect".)

    I feel like there is always one big cause that makes an effect (which is the story) and then a whole bunch of littler causes and effects that drive the story.

  3. Beautifully said, and something that I think a lot of people (myself included) miss out on. And it's such a fantastic opportunity to really connect with the reader. For me, when I read and understand and sympathize with a character's logic, I can better sink into the story. I also agree with Madeline Bartos's comment that one big "cause" starts the story while smaller causes drive it. Great post, Aimee! Thanks for sharing!

  4. This is something I'm trying to keep in mind during this round of revisions. WHY does X do this or say that? What's driving them? If I don't know, how can I expect my reader to find it believable?

    Thanks for another thought provoking post, Aimee.

  5. Very inspiring post. I never thought all that deeply about cause/effect until now. The reasons why people (and characters) do what they do is just as important as the action itself.

    Just found your blog from a friend's blog and I'm glad I stopped by!

  6. Brilliant post, Aimee. This complimented your critique and I'm even more inspired. :) :)