Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Creating story flow: the secret power of cause and effect

I call the law of
cause and effect a “secret power” because many writers have never stopped to think about it.

But I guarantee that each time you pick up a book, your reading experience is dramatically influenced by this one natural law.

We’ve all read books where the writing doesn’t seem to flow. Often you can’t put your finger on why. All you know is, the writing feels choppy, the phrasing awkward. You struggle to maintain your focus. Your mind continually wanders away from the page.

When you pick up a different book, however, the author engages your attention from the first page. The words flow so naturally and smoothly that you cease to think about the author’s voice at all. The story becomes an unstoppable current and you let yourself be swept along for the ride, fully immersed in the fictional world.

As authors, we all desire this second experience for our readers. And so we study diligently about how to hook our readers from the first line, how to escalate conflict, how to deepen characterization.

All of which are good, and immensely important.

But the whole shebang falls apart – and the reader will be wrenched from your storyworld without even knowing why – if you ignore the law of cause and effect.

You may have heard this concept discussed in different terms. Dwight Swain, in his classic craft book “Techniques of the Selling Writer”, coined the term “Motivation Reaction Units”, or MRU’s.

We’re both talking about the same thing. And the concept is simpler than you might think.

In short, cause must always precede effect.

Every event in your story must be caused by the motivation or action that preceded it.

If that statement made you knot your forehead and chew your nails, take a look at some examples with me, and you’ll quickly see how simple and essential this concept really is.

Example One

Kate hit the door lock and slumped down in the passenger seat, her heart thumping in her chest. She was sure she’d seen a black-masked face in the shadows of the parking lot.

Okay. Hold it right there, and let’s have a think about what goes through a reader’s mind as they read this sequence. First, we see the character doing something – hitting the door lock and slumping down in the seat. (Effect). As a reader, we pause for a split second to wonder – why on earth is she doing that? The result is that we’re pulled from the story, however briefly. In the next breath, the author answers our question. (Cause). But it’s too late – the flow has already been interrupted.

All of this occurs on a subconscious level, but it’s enough to disengage the reader.
Do this enough times and you’ll destroy narrative flow, and the reader will find it harder and harder to re-engage with the story.

Let’s try that segment again, this time paying attention to the secret power of cause and effect.

Something moved in the shadows at the edge of the parking lot. Kate squinted through the windshield, and the darkness resolved into a solid form.

A black-masked face.

Kate hit the door lock and slumped down in the passenger seat, her heart thumping in her chest.

Cause? Kate saw the face. Effect? An instant physical and physiological reaction.

Structuring the sentences so cause precedes effect creates a natural, logical flow. An astute observer will note that in this improved version, the writer shows what happens as it occurs. When cause and effect become muddled, as in the first example, the writer is reduced to telling – giving an after-the-fact explanation for an effect that has already taken place.

Example Two

Brenda jumped from the edge of the roof after taking one last look at the open-mouthed stares of the people beneath.

Instead of building to a climax and ending on a strong note, this sentence fizzles. Why? Because it’s written in reverse chronological order. The strength of the action (“She jumped from the edge of the roof”) is diminished by the author’s immediate backtracking to what happened a split-second before the action. A story should flow continuously forward, never backward.

The sentence should read:

Brenda took one last look at the open-mouthed stares of the people beneath. Then she jumped.

Continuous forward motion creates momentum. That’s what you want. The momentum for a reader to keep flipping the pages. When an author unconsciously uses reversals like this one, the effect is like repeatedly tapping the brakes. It makes for a jerky ride. Enough of that, and the reader is going to bail out of the vehicle.

An exception

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. In this case, your opening hook is that exception. It’s fine to launch a book, chapter or scene with an event (effect) for which we’ve not yet been given a cause. This creates curiosity in the reader. The term for this literary device is in medias res, or “in the middle of the action.”

When you do this in the middle of a scene, on the other hand, your writing seems clumsy, and the natural flow of your book is interrupted.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts. Have you ever considered cause and effect in your own writing? Do you have any further questions in order to clarify what’s been discussed here? Why not take a look at your rough draft and see if you can find some instances where you’ve muddled cause and effect? Feel free to throw in a sentence or two for us to critique together.

Image courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

EXCELLENT post, Karen! I love having examples for me to actually see the point being made!

I have never read any of D. Swain's books, but I hear they are excellent!

Ryoma Sakamoto.Japan said...

I am always grateful for a wonderful blog.
Favorite season is autumn now Japanese.
For me it is the season for reading.
I like poetry and fiction and advice.
I also present and writer Yasunari Kawabata and Masaoka Shiki and Soseki Natsume, a lot of foreign.
I'm sorry I was wrong spelling.
From Japan.
Ryoma Sakamto.A

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks, Sherrinda! So glad that made sense! LOL

Ryoma Sakamto, welcome! So pleased you found our blog! I hope you stop by again. And don't worry - your English is about ten thousand times better than my Japanese. :)

Lindsay Harrel said...

Karen, awesome points. I think I've known this but never really thought about WHY it needed to be this way. I love examples, so thanks for those. They help so much!

Jeanne T said...

Karen, this is super. I've worked on this in my own writing, but I'll have to look through my wip to see if I still have places where I've written revesals. Your examples were most helpful!

I hadn't realized that writing the effect before the cause would make the flow so choppy. Thanks for sharing this today!

Unknown said...

Brilliant! I sat in a class earlier this spring taught by Steven James--he taught the same thing. Great stuff, Karen!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I've heard about the MRU's but you put this very clearly. Definitely something to think about as I pursue my edits. Great post, Karen!

Jill Weatherholt said...

I love Dwight Swain's book, but your examples and explanations made MRU's easier to understand. Thanks, Karen!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Lindsay, yes, the "why" is so important, isn't it? When you get a grasp on the reason for something the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

Jeanne, it's cool that you've already given this conscious thought in your MS! I'm with you - I need to go back through and have another look for places I may have gotten this mixed up. It's so easy to make a slip.

Melissa, that's encouraging! I'm glad to know I'm on the right track! :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Julia and Jill, I'm glad that was helpful. I was a little worried I might confuse everyone, so it's good to hear my meaning came across clearly. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I appreciated the examples you gave. So clear. Sometimes we don't realize our mistakes, we just know the section doesn't sound right. I'll keep a watch in my work and make sure I have a cause and that order.

Pamela Cook said...

Great post Karen. You explain it so much more simply than the mru thing. And the examples you give are spot on.