Cause & Effect

Do you ever feel like there’s words floating around your head and you need to just get them out, no editing, no thinking, nothing. Just blurt out everything in your head? Well that’s how I feel today, so I’m sorry for the grossly unedited piece of work below. (Though I did go back after the fact and add in headings to help bring some order to the chaos.)

The slightly schizophrenic feeling might be due to the fact that I have been trying with all my might to sink into a storyworld—any storyworld—and find an awesome piece of story to tell. I wasn’t successful, but unfortunately, my head is now flooded with so many words and thoughts that I had to perform a makeshift trepanation on myself. Behold the massive braindump that ensued:

Have you ever noticed how writer’s block almost always happens when you read stories that are stupendously awesome? Because whenever you read stories that are stupendously awesome, you feel like you can’t possibly ever reach that level of awesomeness.

In a desperate effort to push that feeling aside and just start something, I remembered a piece of writing advice I had read once: in order to begin, you should make a list of things you love reading about in your favorite stories.

Since my head was already swimming in the amazing stories I’ve read,  I decided to do just that and this is what I came up with:

  1. twist endings
  2. loyal friends
  3. fantastical adventures

And that’s when I stopped. Because while I was doing that, I was also multitasking and looking up ways to get story ideas and a video by Jenna Moreci suddenly caught my eye (note: she does swear sometimes, so if you’re sensitive, please consider yourself duly warned :D). It was about dealing with the self-doubt that writers experience, but it triggered a memory of another video of hers I had watched regarding fight scenes.

She was amazing in describing how to write a proper fight scene, but I had realized at the time that it was partly because she encouraged clearly stating the EFFECT of what was happening to the characters. You can’t just have a character take a punch and move on. What happened as a consequence of that? Mention that wet trickle of blood they feel running down their face, or their now blurred vision. These are obvious effects to being roughed up too hard, and are essential for the reader to be engaged in the story.

It’s in the Details

Clearly Stated

R.L. Stine does things like that. He did a cool classroom kit for his young readers that can be found here. On page 7, he provides an example of a journal entry that he then fleshes out by asking questions.

When I first encountered it, I had thought, “Oh. You just add details. Next.”

But if you pause and take a look at it more closely, those details are really just cause and effects. For example:

It’s really hot today.

To which Stine scribbled, “How hot? How does it feel?”

In other words, what is the EFFECT of the high temperature?

It was so hot out today, the street sizzled.

More impactful? Hell yessir.

Or Alluded To

Although the above is an example of a clear-cut cause and effect sentence, it seems that sometimes, you can get by with just stating a cause and alluding to the effect. For example, if you travel much further down:

Compare these two sentences.
(1) It was raining as Amy walked home.
(2) Amy felt the cold raindrops running down her face as she stared at the long, dark road ahead of her.

#1 is merely stating the cause. This would require you to then state the effect.

#2 is just stating the causes, but in such a way that it implies the effect. It describes the stimuli (i.e., environment/situation) so well that the reader doesn’t need more prompting to understand how the scenario must feel. Clearly stating the feeling (e.g., if she shivered), then becomes overdone and ineffective.

: caveat

Leaving out the effect is only useful for scenarios to which most people can easily relate. That is, I’m pretty sure more people have experienced being alone in the dark or feeling wet raindrops on their face than getting punched.

In which case, you need to bring the reader into the action and the only way to bring them in is to have them become aware of the consequences of your world. From the big, larger-than-life consequences to the small, it’s-in-the-details consequences.

For a Better Understanding

A More Comprehensive Example

I recently started reading a poignant book called “Of Blood and Fire” by Jahanara Imam. It’s actually pages taken from the diary she kept during Bangladesh’s independence war. There were so many scenes that were shocking, and not in the sense that they included blood and gore. Because, really, it’s…a war. Of course there will be blood and gore. (Ha! That rhymes. 🙂 ) The scenes that actually shocked me were the AFTER effects of the bloodshed. Some of the changes/details mentioned were so mundane, you normally wouldn’t have even thought of for a fictional book (which makes sense since this was a real account of the events). But these were precisely the details that drove it home for me. (And should really be considered when we write fiction.)

For instance, the night of the first massacre was horrific, but logically, I knew it would be. What I didn’t expect was the following morning, when she went out to her veranda as usual and mentioned in passing that she couldn’t hear any birds singing. What I didn’t expect was the effect of that small comment. That infinitesimal detail made the event more real to me. It was with that bit of detail that I was standing on the veranda with her, 40-something years ago, and listening to the silence that suddenly penetrated her world.

Imam managed to adeptly illustrate the effects of something not many of us have directly experienced—war.

The Bigger Picture

Now, lets back it up and see the novel as a whole. Even when deconstructing books back in those high school English classes, it always seemed to be about the cause and effect cycle. I hadn’t realized it back in the day (probably because even though I loved reading, I hated analyzing…it took the ‘magic’ out of it), but my grade 10-12 English teacher had drilled into our heads the importance of the cause and effect cycles in stories by making sure that all our essays analyzed fictional works by essentially answering the following question:

How does _____ affect _____?

I don’t know why it took so long for me to make the connection that if that is the case while deconstructing a book, it must be the case while actually constructing a book. *facepalm* Ah wells. Better late than never.

Twist Endings

Twist endings were a different kind of cause and effect. In twist endings, you have an effect that you would NEVER have thought of, but it is irrefutable and completely believable because it still perfectly ties to the cause.

It’s like a “Surprise!” effect, but if you think back, you think, “Aw man, the signs were there! How did I miss it?”

And all you really have to do to create a twist ending is:

“Discard every possible solution you can think of for your protagonist to succeed.

Then think of some more.

And discard those, too.”

from 4 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist
by Rachel Scheller

Explore Ideas

I love how in the stories I love, the causes and effects are things I could never have thought of on my own. Like if something happens in this world, what happens there? I think great stories are stories that make us realize that if this were to happen, then logically, these are the effects of that. And then think, “Wow, I never really thought about it like that!” Because that’s what a story really is, isn’t it? A safe way to explore and be aware of all the possibilities of this world, just set in a storyworld that might be really similar or completely different.

For Example

Star Gate explored different worlds and dealt with issues that people of all ages could relate to. Older generations can appreciate the exploration of how we as a ‘more advanced’ society would feel coming across less advanced civilizations where the Gods they worshipped ended up actually being more technologicaly advanced alien beings. (In my opinion, the most interesting idea they put forth and explored was how the most advanced race of humans actually existed before we appeared on Earth)

Younger generations can either relate to the storylines of Teal’c who is different from the rest of the team, the rebellious O’Neill, Daniel Jackson the nerd (I love nerds!), or Samantha Carter the Mary Sue beautiful blonde, fierce, nice and brainy one.

I also loved how Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories had paranormal activities that dealt with the emotional issues we faced in high school. Like when Xander joined a cackle of hyenas, got mean and forgot his real friends.

Those stories had appeal because they explored the causes and effects of issues we encounter in our lives, just dressed in different world settings.

Conclusion

The main reason we read, write and share stories is because it is the most effective and safest way to explore the possibilities or issues within our lives. And the only way any party (i.e., the writer, reader, storyteller, etc.) really feels fully satisfied is if we pay attention to not only identify the cause but explore what happens because of it. We don’t even have to offer a full resolution. (A lot of books leave it open ended for the reader to determine the proper course of action.) But it is necessary to not leave out the consequences of events that take place in your story, because that is the one safe place it can be explored.

So this is a reminder to myself and to anyone else who needs it: next time you’re stuck, think about an issue you care deeply about. If you’re at a loss, think about what issue you’re dealing with personally right now. Then, create a storyworld and explore the issue. Think, what if? Look at it from every angle you can imagine (e.g., create a character to represent each perspective, or look at it broadly from the world-perspective). Consider everything from the big picture to the small details. This will not only save you thousands on your therapy bills, but will also make your stories come to life.

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