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Editor Roundtable: Bite Size Edition – Cause and Effect

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Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne.

In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.

Today, I’m bringing you an excerpt from an article I wrote about Cause and Effect in stories.

So join me for a quick bite of writing insight, starting right now.

I’ve been thinking about cause and effect relationships in story for quite a while, but a deeper understanding of how causal relationships can improve stories came together for me in a strange context: The Great British Baking Show. I’m not a baker, but I love watching the bakers overcome challenges and hearing the honest and useful feedback from the masters. It’s a guilty pleasure, but it’s also instructive. One thing I’ve noticed is that the bakers who do well consistently, whether they have experience with a particular baked good or not, are the ones who understand which ingredients and methods produce which flavors and textures. In other words, they understand the principles of baking in terms of causes and effects. 

Causal relationships are just as important for storytellers. 

Devoting time to understanding cause and effect relationships in stories will help you better understand the elements of the Story Grid tools, but also help you write a better story.

Stories that work are based on a series of causes and effects. A random series of events, even if interesting, does not create a great story.

This sounds like basic common sense, so why is it such a challenge? Though writers tend to read an awful lot, the mechanics of creating a satisfying story are easy to overlook–we notice how the story feels, and not necessarily the cause (knowledge, skill, and work) for the effect (a great story). 

Causal relationships within stories aren’t taught in typical literature or creative writing courses, so many early story efforts are made of a series of interesting events that may create a beginning, middle, and end, but don’t include a causal thread expressing a specific controlling idea.

But the stories readers enjoy most are the ones with clear causal connections that move from beginning to end, and are present (if not obvious) from macro to micro. The good news is, you can plan, draft, and revise with these relationships in mind.

First we need to understand that Stories Are about Specific Change.

You can’t hang around the Story Grid community for long without hearing that Stories are about change, but what does that really mean? In a basic sense, the protagonist begins the story in one state or condition and ends up in a different state or condition. For example, in an action story some antagonistic force threatens the life of someone the protagonist cares, and by the end the hero saves that victim by defeating a villain. 

That change within a story isn’t random. Instead, the state or condition that changes—what we call life values in Story Grid terms—connects the story’s global content genre to our basic human needs. 

And that change doesn’t happen by lightning strike. Life value changes unfold over the course of the story, though we see more intense movement at critical moments, for example during the Turning Point Progressive Complications of the story and acts. We create gradual change by combining a specific set of conditions and a series of causally related story events—in other words, causes and effects—that arise from conflict and action. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean there has never been a successful story without a clear cause and effect thread. But if your goal is to write a great story, set yourself up for success by learning how the vast majority of great stories work, rather than focusing on anomalies. You might get lucky, but why would you risk it?

Let’s consider how conditions, proximate causes, and effects work in a story and how they are baked into the Story Grid tools. 

Conditions

Before a cause can produce an effect, the conditions to make it possible must exist within the environment. If you want to bake croissants, you’ll need the ingredients, some tools, an oven, and at least a basic idea of how to proceed. 

Similarly, the conditions for a certain life value change should be present in the story or scene in the same way, but what does that mean? 

Certain conditions are needed to make a particular life change possible, and these conditions must exist somewhere within the protagonist’s environment. For example, in an Action story, there must be some force of antagonism in the environment that threatens the life of the victim, arousing the concern of the hero. These are part of the minimum requirements for an Action story.

In a story, we call these basic conditions genre conventions. Conventions include certain characters, settings, and objects or circumstances that make the specific life value change of the genre possible. So when you hear genre conventions, think the conditions that make a particular change possible.

Proximate Causes

Besides creating the necessary conditions or potential for a particular change, some catalyst or proximate cause must happen to kick things off. Those croissants will never be made if the baker doesn’t combine the ingredients, but of course, that’s only the beginning. The baker must knead and shape the dough and put it in the oven. A series of conditions and events transform the separate ingredients into the finished product, if all goes well.

On the global story level, the proximate cause of the change in life value is the global inciting incident–for example, in an action story, there is an inciting attack by the villain. From there every other scene should contribute to the global life value change by shifting the life values incrementally, that is creating effects. We see this in the obligatory scenes and the 15 key scenes of the story. Each new scene is the result of something that came before and includes the conditions and a proximate cause for the effects that follow. 

Effects

The final effect is what happens as a result of the initial conditions and the proximate cause, and we can distill this change from beginning to end down to the controlling idea or theme of the global story. This is a simple statement that tells us the result of the life value change for the protagonist and why–in other words, the cause and effect. 

If all goes well at the end of our baking project, we have croissants that look and taste like a croissant should, and that create a specific experience for the consumer. But before we got there, the dough needed to be worked and shaped, the oven needed to be turned on to the correct temperature, we needed to leave the pastries in long enough, but not too long, etc.

The same is true of stories. Global story conventions create the conditions for a particular macro change, and the proximate cause kicks things off, but other events occur along the way to create the final result, an experience within the reader. The interim elements include all of your scenes, but in particular, the obligatory scenes and the 15 key scenes. 

Within the structure of a scene, we see the same structure. Scene conditions include the story events that have come before, but also include more micro, specific conditions: the characters, setting, and objects that make the micro proximate cause, or inciting incident, possible, and the events within the scene that create the scene’s resolution.  

In real life, the relationship between cause and effect is often obscured by a gap in time or distance. Sometimes we don’t understand which cause creates a particular effect. For instance, if the baker doesn’t understand that it is the butter between layers of dough that create the flaky quality of a croissant, they won’t see the proximate cause of the missing layers in their finished croissants. 

In stories, effects generally need to be clear and immediate. The global life value change happens as the result of micro causes and effects within the smaller units of story. What each cause means and why it matters should also be apparent if someone were to look closely.

Sometimes you might purposely withhold certain effects or what they mean from the reader, but you should know what’s really going on. In early drafts, the best course is to write the effects clearly into the text and then remove what you’re trying to cover up. You might also track them in a special column within the Story Grid spreadsheet.

As a writer the effect you want to cause is a story that keeps readers spellbound, delighting or disturbing them as appropriate, with characters and events that linger in the mind long after they reach the end. I suspect you also understand that that result takes effort, and you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes. Understanding the cause and effect relationships within stories will help you create the conditions that to write better ones.

Click here to read the article on which this episode is based.

If you’d like to connect with me, you can contact me through my website, Writership.com. You can also check out the Story Grid Editing Services page to see what the other editors have to offer.

Join us next time for Valerie’s final look into stories that explore sanity and madness with the 2010 film Black Swan. We want you to be aware, if you choose to give it a look and follow along with us, there are several disturbing scenes within the film. 

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.