“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
As you get set for NaNoWriMo, understand that you’re going to get stuck. You. Will. Absolutely. Get. Stuck.
Call that writer’s block, call it not-enough-time-to-write, call it whatever you want. In my admittedly personal experience, all of that is a symptom of a problem somewhere in the story. When things are really clicking, I make time to write. I get up at four in the morning, if I have to. But when I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, sitting down at that keyboard is agony.
Often, this comes down to a problem with goals and incomplete causality. Things are happening, but they happen to my characters, instead of my characters acting to make them happen. The characters may have long-term goals, sure, but most of the individual scenes are what Cheryl Klein calls "and also" scenes. Scenes where, for the characters, not much changed emotionally or literally. In other words, the scenes aren’t vital except that we learn some information. They don’t build the chain of cause and effect.
Cause and effect is the root of fiction. It's also the flip side of looking at goal and outcome. On the macro level, causality links events, and on a micro level, it forms the stimulus and response pairs that form how our characters respond to events. Cause and effect, goal and outcome, stimulus and response—these are what motivate characters to engage with what is happening in believable and interesting ways. Making cause and effect vital is a huge part of making sure that every scene changes the outcome of the story overall.
Jack M. Bickham does a great job laying down some guidelines in SCENE AND STRUCTURE:
- Stimulus must be external--that is, action or dialogue, something that could be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
- Response must also be external in the same way.
- For every stimulus, you must show a response.
- For every desired response, you must provide a stimulus.
- Response usually must follow stimulus at once.
- When response to stimulus is not logical on the surface.
For most of those statements, we could substitute cause and effect and end up with a valid guideline, too. The difference is, I think, that readers are more tolerant of when they find out the cause and effect relationship than they are about seeing the response to a stimulus.
It’s helpful to each scene in your WIP from three different perspectives: lack, cause, and goal. You can do this before you write, while you write, and after you have written.
The Lack of Something
There's an old proverb that Madeleine L'Engle used in The Wind and the Door, the sequel to A WRINKLE IN TIME. It's also used in the movie TOKYO DRIFT. In each case, it illustrates the cascading effect of something seemingly inconsequential.
- For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
- For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
- For want of a horse the rider was lost.
- For want of a rider the message was lost.
- For want of a message the battle was lost.
- For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
- And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
In essence, this same relationship has to exist in the novel, beginning with the inciting incident. Whether you want to phrase it as a "lack" or a goal doesn't matter as much as the fact that there is something that happens that causes something else to happen, and that we understand why.
BeCAUSE of Something
To illustrate this, let me rewrite the events in the proverb and turn them into an actual story. Let's say that Fiona is a girl in a castle threatened by an advancing army. The castle protects a critical road. With every able bodied male engaged in fighting the enemy, Fiona's father sends her through enemy lines with information for the King and a plea for help.
- Because Fiona must stay off the more traveled road, her horse loses a nail from its shoe.
- Because she can't stop on that road, the whole shoe comes off.
- Because she can't find a blacksmith, the horse goes lame.
- Because the horse goes lame, Fiona cannot get out of the way of the rebel army fast enough.
- Because she cannot get out of the way fast enough, she is captured.
- Because she is captured, the message is found by the enemy.
- Because the message reaches the enemy and not the King, help doesn't reach the castle.
- Because the castle falls to the enemy, the enemy can now march down the crucial road and conquer the entire kingdom.
Striving for Something
The problem with the story above is that it still leaves too many questions unanswered. As a writer, I still need to understand the motivation and the cause and effect of the story both on a macro and a micro level. It helps me to look at that same scenario as a series of scene goals and complications.
Martina Boone is the author of SIBA Book Award nominated Compulsion, book one in the romantic Southern Gothic trilogy, the Heirs of Watson Island, from Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, which was an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance, a Goodreads Best Book of the Month and YA Best Book of the Month, and an RT Magazine Best of 2014 Editor’s Pick. The second book in the trilogy, Persuasion, will be published October 27, 2015. She is also the founder of as well as , the three-time Writers Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" site providing craft, inspiration, workshops, agent-judged contests, and giveaways.