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This post originally appeared on Medium in January 2021.
Today we are going to dig into a seemingly simple topic: cause and effect. I say “seemingly simple” because, in stories as well as in life, we know that generally one thing leads to another. You spill your coffee down your shirt, like I did this morning, and you’ll change shirts. Someone cuts you off in traffic, and you feel annoyed. Cause, and effect. For writers this is no different. The protagonist spills coffee down her shirt, and she goes to change. But there is a deeper way to consider cause and effect, and it is essential to both keeping your story moving forward and keeping the reader engaged.
I’m going to go back to my childhood obsession with the original Star Wars trilogy, if you’ll bear with me. It’s funny because I generally don’t read or watch much fantasy or sci-fi, but this series came out just as I was beginning to watch movies (which dates me a bit, I realize) and I simply fell in love with the adventure of it all. Plus, it’s a familiar enough story that I can dissect it here and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
In the first movie, Luke Skywalker is just a regular dude living on a regular farm on a regular desert planet… kind of a boring existence. But he wants something: adventure among the stars. What’s keeping him from getting it is his responsibility to his family, but when they are killed after buying a droid with a secret message from the rebel alliance inside, he no longer has any ties holding him there, and he heads off for new adventures. This is the beginning of the plot of the story.
Now, let’s talk about cause and effect. There are two levels of cause and effect: the plot level and the emotional level.
It isn’t enough to have action or events lead to more action or events. There has to be a parallel line of cause and effect happening inside the protagonist, where their emotions are driving their decision-making.
Plot-Level Cause and Effect
On the plot level you have actions or events leading to new actions or events. Luke and his uncle buy the two droids, which ultimately leads to the death of his aunt and uncle when stormtroopers come looking, which leads to Luke leaving his home and heading off into the stars with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Emotional-Level Cause and Effect
Luke has an internal conflict — longing to leave for new adventures while feeling a sense of responsibility at home. This conflict keeps him from agreeing to go at first when Obi-Wan suggests it, and the sense of responsibility rises to the surface when he realizes that his aunt and uncle are in danger. He races home, finds them dead, and, grieving, says that there is nothing for him on this planet anymore. This is the point where he decides to go with Obi-Wan after all.
Even if you have the most compelling or exciting events happening in your story, it isn’t enough to have action or events lead to more action or events. There has to be a parallel line of cause and effect happening inside the protagonist, where their emotions are driving their decision-making. Whatever they want in that moment, however they are feeling, that is what is moving the story forward.
And — BONUS! — it is what will keep your reader interested. Why? Because, as humans, all of our actions are driven by emotions. We feel bad and we want to feel better, so we act accordingly. We feel good and we want to keep feeling good, so we act accordingly. When we see someone act a certain way, the first thing we ask is why. And since part of the reason that we read is to grow our own understanding of the world, we need to be able to identify the reasons why a character is acting and deciding and choosing the way that they are.
Here is what I recommend you try with your current or next writing project. Take out a piece of paper, and write down the major plot points of your story in whatever format works for you, whether it’s a graph or an outline or a bullet-point list. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. The cause and effect in the actions and events should be pretty clear. Then, alongside each of those major plot points, make a note of why this is happening. What is the internal story of the protagonist at this point? Why are they making the choice or decision or taking the action they are taking right now? What are they trying to accomplish, and why?
This is not a small task, nor is it an easy one. But it is an essential piece of the puzzle of your story. Knowing along the way what is causing both the external events and the internal drive of the story, and then knowing what those events and drives will result in, is how you keep your story moving forward effectively and in a way that will engage your reader enough to want to keep turning pages.
May the Force be with you.
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