The Three Dirty Birds Talk about Cause and Effect


And the Three Dirty Birds are chirping again about Story Trumps Structure by Steven James.

Ana: Okay, so this chapter was about how cause leads to effect and never the other way around.

Zoe: James stresses that it’s important to make sure it’s clear to readers why something happened, so they’re not pulled out of the story by pointless questions (“Did I miss something? Why did she do that? Where did that come from?”). By making it clear what caused something to happen—by putting the cause before the reaction—you avoid those questions.

Kate: I thought it was good where he said not to give readers time to think between the action-reaction pair. How often have we read something where the reaction comes a paragraph or more later in the text? And you’re wading through miles of the action character’s thought, feelings, memories…

Ana: I love when that happens. Especially when that character goes through the same emotional roller coaster several times in the course of the novel. Can’t get enough of it.

Kate: I love sarcasm… 🙂

Zoe: Ana is made of sarcasm.

I have notes in this chapter that I actually took from another book that goes even deeper into the cause-effect structure. Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer breaks the reaction—the effect—down into three pieces. Not all three pieces need to always be present, but they always need to be in the right order. According to Swain, first the cause happens, then the very next thing is feeling. He’s careful to point out that feeling isn’t thought—it’s the kneejerk emotional reaction. It drives the other two parts, which are action (which may or may not be kneejerk—perhaps a gasp, or the character turns and begins fiddling with a flower arrangement) and speech, which is almost always not kneejerk. The more thought or conscious effort a reaction requires, the later it happens.

Ana: Good input. Though I’d argue that with some characters speech can be kneejerk. I have at least one who seriously lacks a filter.

Zoe: That’s why I said “almost.” Also, along these lines, that puts “thought” in the speech category in many cases, not the “feeling” section where some writers tend to place it (causing the break-up between cause and effect that drives us nuts).

Kate: I think that sometimes happens because the character is thinking through his or her emotions, and not just feeling them. You know, the “I’m so angry at him right now. I’ll just leave, and then he’ll be sorry!” thing.

Zoe: Yes, but it’s still higher-level processing than actually feeling the anger, which is what drives the thought process to happen. Swain’s big on chronological order. (Not in plotlines, just in how things like this play out.)

Ana: I like chronological order at sentence-level.

Kate: James does get into three situations where you can reverse the order to effect-cause, in order to better serve the purposes of the story with respect to tension. The first one, where he talks about starting a chapter with the effect, is not my favourite.

Zoe: I like that he included those, because it shows that you can absolutely break the rules—as long as you’re doing it intentionally and you have an idea of why. Like with the dialogue example he gives—it wouldn’t read as realistic if you always put what people say in cause/effect order. People tend to shout the most important thing first: “Get out! There’s a bomb!”

Kate: Coming back again to “What would this character naturally do?”

Zoe: Yes!

Ana: Also coming back to ‘story trumps structure’!

Zoe: That too. 🙂 And the third instance he gives for breaking the rule is like the first: putting the cause second to place emphasis on a dramatic cause. It looks like a cliffhangery (and not necessarily terrible) way to end some chapters.

Kate: It works to raise tension. You should already be raising tension at that point, but the last line, showing the dramatic cause, creates a spike in tension that should carry the reader over the rest point between chapters.

Ana: Yes, and if you use your exception well and go from cause to effect in the rest of the story, I think you easily create a story that ‘flows well.’

Zoe: That’s a good point. If you reserve effect-cause for well-thought-out exceptions, they shine more than if they’re buried among not-so-well-thought-out ones.

Kate: What Zoe said. Can we jump back a few pages? He said something about all emotions needing to have a cause and I find that’s something that certain writers don’t make sure. The physical causes and effects all cue properly, but there are some authors who drive me to incoherent rage in their clumsy handling of emotional effects.

Zoe: Yes, what he actually says is “every change in thought, emotion, and action needs to be caused,” but you’re right—actions are more likely to have the causes apparent, and emotion (and thoughts) just kind of…go all over the place…in some stories.

Ana: I feel in those stories the emotions of the characters are what the author needed them to be at that point, without really giving a cause / making it relatable.

Kate: Serving the plot, not the character. But then it affects actions, or perhaps they do it because they know they need a cause for the action they want the character to take?

Zoe: Nail meet head!

Kate: For me, it’s more like desk meet head. It’s one of my many quirks.

Ana: I always find it most baffling when someone appears indifferent, and then suddenly they’re in love.

Zoe: So writers, ask yourself “why is this character feeling this way?” when you’re working a scene, and once you figure it out, show us that why. (I’d even posit that it makes the emotion play better, just because you set the reader up to anticipate it. The cause is a promise!)

Ana: I had a problem like that with a story I was reading recently. A guy and a girl were working together, then the girl gets herself into a damsel in distress situation and the guy had to risk his job to save her, which he did, because he loved her. Only I didn’t believe it because, before the damsel in distress situation, there was no build up of a romantic relationship between these characters, or even an indication (or maybe small indications if I’d been looking, but nothing strong enough to promise me a romance.) So this guy’s emotions that were supposed to be strong enough to make a life-changing decision seemed to come out of nowhere.

Kate: Lots of effect, but no cause. What they didn’t do was foreshadow, which I think we’ve talked about already in other chapters, but I think we also get into it in the next chapter, where we’re talking about making things believable.

Ana: He comes back to foreshadowing a lot.

Kate: Maybe it’s just a personal thing, but I really believe in foreshadowing, and I’ll stick stuff into the first chapter that doesn’t become important until near the end, because I think we need to build the world with all its details.

Ana: Oh, I do too. I love foreshadowing. Makes that dun-dun-dun sound in my head when it plays out.

Kate: Lol, now I’m going to be doing that too. It’s really fun, isn’t it? Like a little game I play with myself and my crit partners. And my readers. 🙂

Zoe: Little did the Dirty Birds expect what was waiting for them in the next chapter….

Dun, dun, dunnnn…

About the author: Kate Lowell

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