Most Common Writing Mistakes: Poor Cause and Effect

most common writing mistakes 2 poor cause and effectAs creators of story worlds, authors are privileged with a certain amount of inside information. We almost always know what’s going to happen to the characters before an event actually occurs. We understand cause and effect intuitively. The readers and the main character might not have seen that left hook coming from the antagonist, but we authors saw the bad guy sneaking up on the protagonist long before his actions manifested themselves on the page.

The Effect of Jumbled Cause and Effect

Because of this inside information, it’s all too easy to confuse readers by showing the effect of an action, before showing the cause. Consider the following example:

Cora opened the window to yell at her son. He stood next to the fire hydrant across the street, even though she’d told him about a million times to stay in the yard.

At the beginning of this paragraph, readers have no idea why Cora is yelling. They don’t know her son is across the road, anymore than they know Cora had instructed him to stay in the yard. Here’s an even more subtle example of this transposition:

Cora jumped and whirled around when the fire hydrant exploded.

Readers see Cora jump, but they have no idea why she jumped.

Why Is Poor Cause and Effect Even a Problem?

At first glance, this may seem like a niggling problem. After all, readers have only to read to the end of the sentence to discover why Cora reacted as she did. But by transposing events, even momentarily, you’re blocking readers’ view of the story.

In his article “3 Secrets to Great Storytelling” (Writer’s Digest, January 2011), thriller author Steven James explains:

As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that.

Often, writers show the effect before the cause out of simple negligence. Because we know what’s happened, the lapse in linearity doesn’t present any confusion for us.

Don’t Confuse Poor Cause and Effect With “Creating Suspense”

Some authors will go further by purposely transposing cause and effect in a mistaken attempt to create suspense:

Elliot stared in shock. This couldn’t be happening. If only he’d known, he might have prevented it. Heart pounding, he sank to the curb. In front of him, police cars surrounded his brother’s crumpled Camry.

This technique works only in a rare handful of instances (chapter beginnings occasionally being one of them). More often the not, the result is reader frustration over your refusal to share the information the characters are receiving as they receive it.

If you can strengthen your narrative by showing a logical progression of cause and effect, you’ll end up with leaner prose, more honest character reactions, and more involved readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you handle cause and effect in your writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Perfect timing. I’m in the middle of a fight scene, so cause-and-effect has to be smooth for the reader. However, I’m keeping the POV tight 1st person, and, from that POV, some things happen out of order.

    Outside view: Bullet hits her leg armour. Armour stiffens briefly. She notices armour is stiff. She adapts quickly to movement restriction (highly trained and experienced). She reasons that a bullet hit it.

    Her POV: She notices she is unable to move normally and the armour is stiff. She adapts. She reasons that a bullet hit the armour.

    Those are expanded descriptions. Part of the solution will be to keep cause and effect very close. Concentrate on her sensations and reflexes, not her thought processes.

    • Action scenes are among the most difficult passages to write. Think sumi-e, not pointillism. Avoid telling detail after detail; bogging the reader down in verbiage. Just give the major motions, otherwise things seem to be happening slower, not faster. Rewriting an action scene dozens of times is not unusual. Avoid getting into character thought unless there’s a vary good reason to. E.g., the MC loses sight of the opponent.

  2. Within a tight POV, cause and effect should always reflect the narrator’s experience. Since we’re experiencing the story alongside the character, showing an event before the character’s experience of the event would actually *be* a transposition of cause and effect.

  3. So this order (will only use some): realizes can’t move, confirms armour is stiff, plans to move like this instead, reasons was caused by a bullet, predicts will be temporary.

    Thanks!

  4. Yep, that makes good sense from a tight POV.

  5. I’ve thought about writing a series but that was as far as I made it. LOL Thanks for the great insight. I’ll tuck it away for later.

  6. Give it a go! It’s lots of fun.

  7. This is some great advice! Thanks for making me think much deeper about this topic; I guess I always just skimmed it when it came up before.

    I have a request: in your post, you gave several examples of how NOT to “tell and then show”…could you please give some examples of how it *ought* to be done? For example, how would you re-write your sentences about Cora?

    Thank you! 🙂

  8. Certainly. One of the (many) possible ways to rewrite the wrong examples in the post would be as follows:

    Example #1: Cora looked out the window and saw her son standing next to the fire hydrant across the road. She opened the window and shouted, “Didn’t I tell you a million times to stay in the yard?” (Alternately, you could also dramatize her actually telling him to stay in yard – although I wouldn’t recommend showing it a million times. 😉

    Example #2: The fire hydrant exploded, and Cora jumped and whirled around.

    Example #3: As Eliot rounded the corner of the block, he saw his brother’s crumpled Camry surrounded by police cars. He stared in shock. This couldn’t be happening. If only he’d known, he might have prevented it. Heart pounding, he sank to the curb.

  9. I have to agree with you on this topic, I hate being able to tell what’s going to happen next.

    take care,

  10. As readers, we all like it when an author gives us the most suspense for our buck.

  11. Thank you. 🙂

  12. You’re very welcome!

  13. “If you can strengthen the narrative of your story by showing a logical progression of cause and effect, you’ll end up with leaner prose, more honest character reactions, and more involved readers.”

    Yes, yes, yes. ^-^ Right now I’m making word document, that lists all the questions left unanswered in each chapter. I really want to tie up most of the loose ends in the book. Some I think I’ll leave dangling as I’m getting the feeling now that this might be more than one book.

    I wish I’d have known about story planing when I first started. Being a pantser is fun, but it can also create a lot of extra work. Not a good thing with a first book. /facepalm

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Regarding your lists of questions: very smart! It’s easy for us to miss the specifics of clues that are left dangling and questions left unanswered.

    • Mikhail Campbell says:

      That’s a great practice. I recently did a similar thing for my edits. I made an Excel spreadsheet broken up by scene, and listed the information given in each scene, and the plotlines it contributes to. That way I can have a snapshot view of how each piece of the story progresses and make sure I don’t leave anything out, or repeat info too much.

  14. I think this article might have just changed my writing life. I didn’t even realise what I was doing wrong until I read it but I always knew something was missing!
    P.s I’m going through a lot of your articles for support in writing a novel I have wanted to for a while and have been unable to … so expect a lot of these comments! 😀

  15. Catherine says:

    Right! As a reader, when the author is going toward the reveal backwards, my eyes tend to (whoops) skip a few lines to see what’s actually going on. That’s not what you want as a writer. You want them engaged in the story, not bored and skipping ahead.

  16. Good topic. I’ve seen a LOT of upside-down passages, even including description. My trick is to imagine the scene as if seen through a video camera. The reader only gets to see what is in the camera’s view-finder, NOT what’s in the writer’s head. The POV character can react to what he/she sees, but only after the reader is allowed to see the same thing. This can give a cinematic feel to the work, usually a good strategy.

  17. This is one of the more informative articles that really hit me for six! Your site is really an ‘advanced standing course’ in writing. Although I recently had my first non-fiction book published from my history thesis and it’s selling (slowly), I am currently trying my hand at writing another non-fiction story but like a novel. This article especially, and the others in the various series are a real eye-opener. Thanks to your advice, I know I can do it!. Thanks for this!

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