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.

>>Click here to read more posts in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series.

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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great examples. This really is a common tendency I see when reading fiction. I understand it better now and will go back to see if I am as guilty. It seems by your examples that it wouldn’t be too difficult to correct.

  2. This is not something I had really thought about but the examples are very clear. I’ll have to bear this in mind when writing now…

  3. Excellent examples to explain why it’s important but I’m still not convinced. Yes, you can engage the reader by being on the same page, side-to-side with the character but it also works when you make them guess. As long as they’re deeply involved, I don’t think it matters how.

  4. @Jan: It easy to correct, and in doing so, we often find more poweful phrasings.

    @Myne: Once you’re aware of the problem, writing cause and effect in the proper order becomes a very intuitive way to write.

    @Andrea: As with all “rules,” this one certainly has exceptions. It only becomes a problem when you’re leading your reader away from a conscious suspension of disbelief as he waits for you to reveal your hand and into flat-out confusion. Bottom line: Unless you have a specific reason for transposing cause and effect, it’s safer to write them in the proper order.

  5. Great examples. In general I try to avoid using as and when. Your first two examples would have pull me from the story if I were reading it. The third works in the sense that it’s a deeper POV…at least to me.

  6. Context would make the examples even clearer. What works marginally well as a sentence on its own doesn’t always work as well within a narrative.

  7. I’m going to have to check…


    Thanks for posting this. You drew my attention to something that never occurred to me.


  8. Happy editing!

  9. I had a book of mine edited last year and the editor enlightened me that I did this–alot!! UGH. So now I’m trying to watch for it all the time but I bet I don’t get them all:)

  10. Once you become aware of cause and effect, it’s sort of one of those light bulb moments, because it just makes so much sense.

  11. Thanks for the tips

  12. You’re very welcome, as always!

  13. Oh, great post! I’ve never thought of this, but it’s so important. Thanks for pointing it out ;o)

  14. I think the reason all the problems mentioned so far in this series have been “most common mistakes” is that they’re things we rarely even think about as we’re writing them.

  15. I also think that the rule “wait before rewriting” helps in this case–a lot. When you can come at the story with fresh eyes, you get that same ‘huh?’ feeling that a reader would get…and then you can fix it! (Often writers go back to a story waaaay too soon.)

  16. If we, as the authors, are confused, we gotta know that readers are going to be absolutely befuddled. That kind of objectivity is invaluable in reviewing our work.

  17. I’m glad to get some support on this. I get a lot of grief from my cross-critiquers when I point this out (I’m not implying I’ve never erred with this nit). They feel I blow it out of proportion. I enjoyed being able to send a link to your blog to them. –Regards, Mac

  18. Cause and effect is usually such a simple thing to fix, that the question, in my mind, is, “Why not fix it?” It can’t hurt, and it almost always helps.

  19. wonderful article in the series. i believe a lot of writers have this error without even realizing it. sometimes i wonder if it has to do anything with how you speak. do you think this may be the cause?

  20. Indubitably. We talk the way we think, and we often think faster than the logical, linear narrative progression our readers require in order to make sense of what we’re saying.

  21. I just finished reading a novel that does this like crazy, and it is very annoying. I don’t like it at all, and, thankfully, I only do this when I begin chapter 1.

  22. Chapter beginnings – and particular Chapter One – give you a bit of leeway. So long as you don’t leave the reader in suspense for long, you should be fine.

  23. Simple yet solid info.

    So obvious in understanding, critical in execution.

    Thanks! 🙂

  24. So often, the obvious mistakes are the ones we tend to overlook.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.


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

  29. 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.

  30. Give it a go! It’s lots of fun.

  31. 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! 🙂

  32. 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.

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

    take care,

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

  35. Thank you. 🙂

  36. You’re very welcome!

  37. “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.

  38. 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! 😀

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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!

  42. A simple lesson brought to the surface. By remembering to reveal only what the current character knows, sees, hears, or smells, I think I have always followed the correct path for cause and effect without giving thought to the why of it all.

    Having a process that avoids such problems is good. Knowing why you are avoiding the problem is better.

    Keep up the great work.


  43. Madeline Mapes says

    Ms. Weiland, by transposing events, does this also interrupt transitions from paragraph to paragraph? I often find myself at a road block sometimes when I go from one scene to the next during paragraph transitions. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Paragraph transitions shouldn’t generally require any deviation from the natural progression of cause and effect.


  1. […] Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are You Confusing Readers With Poor Cause and Effect? K M Weiland […]

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