Many of us write in fast mode, forcing ourselves to get words down on paper. It’s exciting. Words run out of your mind like an enormous fish tearing out line from a fishing reel. As the words run out, new ideas go from our subconscious mind to our fingers, like the big fish jumping out of the water saying “hey, look at me!” Sometimes those ideas stick and empower your novel, and sometimes you realize they’re silly.
Check for cause and effect
While seeing a lot of words on paper is exciting, your mind may have raced faster than your fingers on the keyboard. You may have created things out of their natural order. In a scene, there should be what Steven James calls causality—cause and effect—otherwise the “ride” is bumpy and distracting.
His simple example in his book, Troubleshooting Your Novel: “Reggie crossed through the kitchen and opened the cupboard. He was starving and wanted some canned ravioli.” On first read, that sounds “normal.” But of course it isn’t. It’s backward. First, a person would be starving and want the ravioli. Then he’d cross the kitchen to find some food. As James says, “if you have to explain why something just happened, you’re telling the story backward.”
Does it matter? It does if you want a powerful and cohesive story. Individual scenes should move forward, action to reaction, rather than action to explanation. It’s too easy to get it backwards when our fingers are communicating our ideas onto the screen. But, in the editing, that’s where we need to catch these problems. I know I do!
James’ book gives a “fine-tuning” list I recommend you check out. His quick fix: simply “Analyze every scene, as well as every paragraph, to weed out cause-and-effect problems. Pinpoint the connections between events. Does each action have an appropriate consequence? Does the emotional resonance of a scene fit in congruently from the actions within that scene?”
The Domino Effect
This action to reaction is important on the scene level, but it expands to the structure of the story itself. There are certainly many books written about structure. But I briefly want to link the cause-and-effect concept to the bigger picture here.
While researching the topic, I came across a very insightful four-part series by Harrison Demchick of Writer’s Ally.
He wrote: “Narrative is a sequence of cause and effect. The first domino is the inciting incident, and once tipped, it launches a succession of plot beats we call rising action. Over the course of a story, that rising action builds toward a peak we define as climax, and what follows—the remaining dominos—comprise falling action and dénouement, or resolution. Tipping over fifty thousand individual dominos one by one isn’t exciting. It’s tedious. The excitement is in how each domino is knocked down on its own, as a result of the chain reaction that started with the first domino.”
The writer tips the first domino. But after that it’s all cause and effect, naturally occurring if you’ve planned and executed your book with cause-and-effect dominos. When the last domino, last scene, tips over, the reader exhales, satisfied.
It’s all in the editing
A satisfied reader is what all writers want. There are many components to getting there—compelling characters, interesting ideas, good dialogue, appropriate setting. However, cause and effect is a bigger deal than you may have considered.
First, you don’t want readers distracted by internal scene cause-and-effect errors that may cause them to stick their heads out of your story world.
Second, you don’t want readers to follow dominos that stop at a dead end. If you have to take readers by the hand back to your story world and forcefully flick a finger to knock over that final domino, then you should rethink your structural plan.
Both are common mistakes, in my work and maybe in yours.
If it’s in your nature, write fast. Be creative. But the actual work comes in the editing.
One of the best books on fixing a novel is Troubleshooting Your Novel: Essential Techniques for Identifying and solving Manuscript Problems by Steven James.
Harrison Demchick of Writer’s Ally wrote a terrific four-part series cause and effect, “How to Revise and Improve Your Narrative Structure.”