Have you ever noticed how, in life, something always leads to something else? You break the speed limit, the cameras catch you and you are fined! It’s a bit like a conversation: one person says something, and another person responds to what they have just said.
Whether it’s actions or words, this is known as CAUSE and EFFECT and it’s a really good device to use when writing stories. It’s also known as CAUSALITY or CAUSATION or, my favourite, THE ZIG-ZAG. But I think DOMINOES works really well too!
You’ve probably heard this example before:
The King died and the Queen died.
That’s not a story, merely a statement of two events.
The King died and the Queen died of a broken heart is
CAUSE and EFFECT.
There’s an old proverb that illustrates this really well:
For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For the want of a horse, a rider was lost.
For the want of a rider, the message was lost.
For the want of the message, the battle was lost.
For the want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Another example is There’s a hole in my bucket, but you can Google that for yourselves!
In Will Storr’s excellent book The Science of Storytelling*, he says:
Cause and effect is the natural language of the brain. It is how we make sense of our world. Something happens and as a result of that, something else happens.
The first thing that happens in your story is the inciting incident which should dramatically affect your protagonist. The effect of the inciting incident on your protagonist MUST be immediately clear to your readers. Otherwise, why should they be interested? This will then be followed by a chain of events that are all linked by CAUSE and EFFECT.
The Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet was involved with the TV drama The Unit. He became frustrated with his writers producing scenes with no cause and effect – scenes were there simply to deliver information. His memo:
Any scene which does not both advance the plot and stand alone is either superfluous or incorrectly written. The scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with hero finding himself either thwarted or realising that another way exists.
Quite often, when I ask a writer what their story is about, I get a long, involved explanation that has plenty of
… and then this happens, and then that happens, and then …
Instead of and then, we need “because”.
Another way of thinking about CAUSE and EFFECT, is always to think WHY? something is happening. For example: a car breaks down as a couple are escaping from the spooky castle. Coincidence? No! The reader should already know that the car has been tampered with, or the couple cancelled the annual car service so they had money to go on holiday. If things just happen in isolation, they are not realistic and won’t sit well with your reader.
So, keep asking WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY? For example:
- Patti didn’t set the alarm that night.
- What happened? She was late for work.
- And what happened because she was late for work?
- She was ticked off by her team leader.
- And what happened because of that?
- A co-worker came to sympathise and asked her out for a drink!
In this example, you can also work backwards by asking the question WHY?
- Why didn’t Patti set the alarm?
- Because she’d had too much to drink.
- Why had she had too much to drink?
- Because she’d had a row with her boyfriend.
- Why had she rowed with her boyfriend? ……..
As above, work on one of the scenarios below, going forwards in time but also backwards. When practising, the more bizarre the better! Free your mind!
- Billy brings home the class hamster for the holidays
- There’s a power-cut at 3pm at the office (or school)
- It rains on her wedding day
- She leaves her phone at home
- The new boy at school is a rebel
- The new boss likes a drink
- He puts the decimal point in the wrong place
- His/her mother has a stroke
This device can also be used if you get stuck in a story. Instead of thinking of just ONE cause or ONE effect, make a list of four, five or more reasons why or consequences eg
Billy brings home the class hamster for the holidays: Why?
- Because he was naughty, and the teacher said it was a punishment.
- Because he has a crush on his teacher, and he was the first to volunteer.
- Because his younger brother is at home ill and he wants to cheer him up.
- Because he likes a girl down the street who likes animals.
- Because he’s lonely in the holidays and needs a friend
I can’t guarantee that Line of Duty uses this method 😊 but, there was a lot of CAUSE and EFFECT there too!
As you get out and about a bit more now, notice how CAUSE and EFFECT works in everyday life. Then use it for your stories!
*The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr is currently £7.59 on Amazon. It’s quite a deep & hefty read, but if you like reading about writing, it’s one of the best books I’ve found.
How close is your reader?
I’m sure, like me, you’ve read books in which you are absolutely fixated on what the protagonist (hero or heroine) is going to do next. You are living the action with them, in their head, urging them to do this or that, not following in their footsteps but actually in their shoes!
When it comes to your own writing, is that the feeling YOUR readers get? Our aim as writers should be to create an empathy between your reader and your protagonist. You want your reader to care enough about your protagonist to go on reading, right to the end. The lawyer, Atticus Finch, summed it up well in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee:
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To create this empathy, I recommend using:
Deep Point of View
This is where a story is written as though the reader is the main character. Deep point of view ignores the narrator’s voice, experiencing everything as though they were the main character.
This works whether you are writing in the first person or the third: I’ll be giving examples here in the third person.
For Deep POV to work really well, you need to know EVERYTHING about your protagonist, particularly what their goals in life are and what drives them. These features will form part of a CHARACTER PROFILE.
(I’ll be looking at CHARACTER PROFILING in a future workshop. In the meantime, there is a whole chapter on the subject in my book 😊)
- Avoid using dialogue tags. When we write: He said we are telling the reader that someone has said something. It’s far better to show the person in question doing something as he/she is speaking. For example: “I don’t want to go out with you,” Maria said, clearly exasperated at his persistence.
Instead: “I don’t want to go out with you.” Maria turned her back on him. Hadn’t he got the message yet?
- Use internal dialogue. You can get into the head of your point-of-view character so that the reader knows exactly what they are thinking. This is shown in the example above: Hadn’t he got the message yet? This could be carried on: Didn’t he realise he was the class dork and that no-one wanted to be his prom date? Well, she wasn’t going to be the one to tell him. She already had a date, the captain of the school rugger team!
- Don’t name emotions. That is telling the reader what emotion a character is exhibiting. Far better to show. For example: John was furious: that was the third time this year he’d been passed over for promotion.
Instead: John screwed the memo into a ball and chucked it towards the bin; it missed. Three times this year he’d been overlooked. And now that idiot was going to be his team leader.
- Avoid filter words. A bit like he said, she said, filter words are those used by a writer to tell a reader what is going on in a character’s head. For example: As she reached into her handbag, Penny realised she had left her phone at home.
Instead: Penny scrambled in her handbag. Where was it? Oh, no! Fiddlesticks! She’d left her phone at home.
- Other filter words to avoid: noticed, felt, saw, heard, smelled, thought, knew, noted, wondered. For example: How was it, Patsy wondered, that Maggie always got picked as team captain?
Instead: Once again Maggie had been chosen as team captain: Patsy was going to find out why.
- Use your character’s voice, not yours. Each person’s vocabulary is different, depending on such factors as age, gender, culture, background, class, education, environment and situation. A teacher, for example, will use different tones and vocabulary when talking to her students than when she is talking to her younger children
A detective will use different words when talking to his colleagues, talking to a victim’s family and talking to a criminal.
- When describing people, places, objects and events, use words that your character would use, not you or a narrator. Be as specific as you can. For example: Jill couldn’t stop looking at him. He was the best-looking bloke in the room. He was tall, broad-shouldered, dressed in a smart suit, his shoes shining. He was just the sort of man she was looking for.
Instead: She must stop staring. Someone was going to notice. But she couldn’t. He was Brad Pitt gorgeous, in an Armani suit and St Laurent shoes – ostrich leather, weren’t they? As far as she was concerned, he was IT.
If you’d like to look at this topic in greater detail, I recommend The Writer’s Guide to Deep POV by S. A. Soule, currently available from Amazon for £5.13 on Kindle and £12.85 paperback and from e-Bay and Abe books from £7+.
Exercises on Deep POV
- Take a look at one of your recent stories or flash fiction. Can you get rid of dialogue tags, emotion words and filter words? Can your descriptions be more specific? Are you using your character’s vocabulary rather than yours? Rewrite all or part of your story and then READ IT OUT ALOUD. You will hear the difference.
- Write a story (or part of a story) in 450 words, using one of the following scenarios and Deep POV
(a) A student nurse seeing someone faint in a supermarket.
(b) A police officer, on the verge of retirement, facing a man with a gun.
(c) A woman (or man) catching their partner kissing someone else.
(d) A teenager being offered drugs.
If you’d like your story posted for feedback, or if you’d like a paragraph from me, please do send (no more than 450 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org
The workshop for March is all about TIME.
- Think of three or more reasons why a Flashback might be used in a story,
- and two ways in which a Flashback might not work.
Part 1: What is your story’s Time Frame?
Novels, particularly sagas, can cover hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years. James Michener’s epic history Hawaii begins when the earth was formed by volcanic activity, thousands of years before people came along. And they say writers should introduce their protagonist as soon as possible!
Short stories, though, are a completely different matter as far as Time is concerned. By short stories here, I’m talking about both Flash Fiction, which can be anything from 100 to 800 words and short stories which can vary from 1000 words to 8,000+. In a short story, it is advised that you keep your time frame short, continuous, and the plot limited to a single conflict.
For example, an incident at a party (wedding, funeral, meeting etc); someone achieving their goal in the course of a single day (yes, I know James Joyce’s Ulysses at 265,000 words takes place in one day!). This can be expanded to a week or two weeks but, for the sake of clarity for the reader, it’s not recommended you take any more time.
Occasionally you may read phrases like later that summer or the next Christmas. And you might be tempted to cover a greater time frame with four years later he got his expected first at Oxford and landed the job he’d always wanted. But people, and characters, change over the course of a year or more and realistically capturing such changes cannot be done well in a short story.
I remember a story written by a member of one of my writing groups a few years ago. It all took place in an auction room, in the space of just one item being sold. The story was structured around each successive bid for the item, with backstory and character development inbetween. Clever. (I think that was yours, TS. Hope you are well and still writing).
A limited time frame can be used this way as a device to ratch up tension and suspense, such as knowing the bomb will go off in four hours, or the train leaves in an hour, or it’s a week til the wedding.
So, you’ve decided on your time frame but find you still need to let your readers know something of what happened to your protagonist, or antagonist, in the past. Which brings us to …
Part 2: The Flashback
This is a section of a story that goes back in time. It is also known as ANALEPSIS. Looking forward, like a prophecy, is known as PROLEPSIS.
A flashback should only be used to add information that is important/vital to the PRESENT-DAY STORY, such as:
- to show and develop your protagonist’s character;
- to give backstory that is vital to the present-day story;
- to add tension/suspense to the present-day story.
Flashbacks, wrongly used, can:
- stop the flow of the main story which can be anything from mildly annoying to really intrusive;
- overshadow the main story;
- confuse (or bore) the reader.
In novels, flashbacks can be anything from one or two pages up to chapter length. In short stories, they can be one or two sentences long, or a section, such as five or six paragraphs. They must be relevant and interesting, but don’t let them take your reader away for too long from the main, present-day story.
In order to make it clear when your story is going back in time, it is a good idea to use TRIGGERS. These are something that the protagonist comes across that reminds them of a memorable time in the past. Triggers are often related to our senses.
Think of three triggers that take you back to different memories in your past.
Mine: The smell of vanilla essence takes me back to my mother teaching me to make a Victoria sponge; the smell of autumn always reminds me of Ireland and the sight, smell and taste of snails takes me back to a day-trip to Paris!
Use a trigger to take your protagonist back in time and, if at all possible, use the same trigger to bring them back to the present day.
One more thing to watch when you write flashbacks – the tense of the verbs. If your main story is in the present tense, then the flashback is written in the simple past tense.
Jimmy hears the whistle of the train and it takes him back to the time when he missed the train by seconds and he never saw his dad again.
If the main story is in the past, then the flashback should be in the pluperfect tense ie the smell of an open fire brought back memories of when he had been a child, when he had played with his friends in the woods, when he had seen the two men fight.
Unfortunately, this tends to result in rather ‘clunky’ writing with lots of repetition of the word had. What you can do, especially if you have a longish flashback, is to use the pluperfect just a couple of times and then slip into the simple perfect:
Jimmy heard the whistle of the train and it took him back to the time when he had missed the train and he had never seen his dad again. His childhood was tough. He was teased for not having a dad around, bullied even. They called him a Mummy’s boy and he was often in trouble for fighting. As the whistle sounded again, he knew he wasn’t going to let his son suffer the same way. He got on the train – he was going back to make sure.
Try this exercise, choosing one of the scenarios below.
Initially, just make notes on:
- A present-day story for the main character;
- A trigger to take them back in time;
- Back in time when something important happened;
- A trigger back to the present day.
If you’d like to expand your idea, write up to 450 words and mail it (in the email, not as an attachment, please) to email@example.com. I will send you a paragraph of feedback and, if you want me to, post it on this website.
- A bride on her wedding day remembers playing weddings with her parents as a child.
- A teacher remembers his own teacher recognising he was being abused at home.
- An elderly woman remembers the first time she met the love of her life.
- A police officer remembers what a tearaway he had been as a teenager.
January Workshop: SETTING
Warmup exercise, no more than three or four minutes.
- Think of three places where you feel comfortable or happy or confident. Why have you chosen those?
- Think of three places where you feel uncomfortable or unhappy or shy or nervous. Why do you feel like that in those places?
Now read my article. If you’re with a writing buddy or in a group, you could have a discussion before going onto the exercises.
WHERE you set your story is just as important as your characters and their conflicts. If you get the setting wrong, it could, and probably will, detract from the characters and their story. If you get it right, your readers con’t notice as it will seamlessly blend with all the other elements to provide a story that is real and believable.
The two biggest problems with settings in fiction are:
1. There’s too little,
2. There’s too much!
A question I’ve often been asked is: “How much research should I do?” And the answer? As much as is needed.
I’ve just finished reading a new novel from a very well-known writer. I’m not going to name them as I don’t want my opinion to impact on your enjoyment of the book. But I was so disappointed to find that his style has changed somewhat and that we get detailed (and I mean DETAILED) descriptions of every room the hero enters, entry street he drives down, every person he meets. The book itself was also quite repetitive in action, resolution, action …. Perhaps he didn’t have quite enough plot points to fill the word count!
Another book I’ve read recently was almost the opposite. It was set on an island off the coast of Britain that I happen to have visited. The descriptions took me back there and I could picture exactly where the action was taking place. But, I believe, if someone who didn’t know the island read the book, then there was enough, but not over-done, description to allow them to build a good impression of the place.
So, what do you need to think about when deciding on a place, or places, for your story?
- What does this place mean to your protagonist? Is he/she at home here, perhaps in charge, or are they anxious or nervous? A dentist is in charge, a patient often anxious.
- What will your protagonist notice about the place, rather than you, the writer? A potential burglar will be looking at easy access points and what they can steal; new first-time home-owners will be euphoric with the newly-fitted kitchen; a D-I-Y fanatic will be looking at what needs doing.
- Can you use the senses to describe (through your protagonist’s pov) the setting? What can they hear through the thin walls of the new apartment? What does a detective smell on entering the scene of a crime? Almonds? What memories does the feel of an old quilt bring back for an elderly person?
- How does the setting contribute to the conflict in a scene?
If your protagonist is in a strange building in the dark, trying to find the light-switch can increase the suspense.
Trying to escape from a kidnap attempt, does your protagonist know about the narrow alley just ahead where the car cannot follow?
Going back to old childhood haunts, they often feel smaller and less intimidating when you’re older.
- Can you be specific enough to draw your readers in? This is where knowledge and/or research comes in. If you know a place well, be careful not to use all that information – only what your protagonist would know and notice. If you’re researching a place, make sure whatever you find out relates to your characters, particularly your protagonist.
If you are writing a short story, you may only need one, two or three different settings. They don’t all need the same amount of description.
If you are writing a novel, you’ll need many more. It pays to spend time on each setting, taking note of whose “domain” each setting is, who’ll be spending time there, what will be happening there, what you need to include and what is superfluous.
The final question I’m going to pose about setting is this:
Why this particular place?
Does it have a particular significance for your protagonist?Is the setting a metaphor for the theme of your story? A garden that hasn’t been tended for years like the couple’s marriage.
Is the setting man against the elements? Jungles, deserts, the sea, a storm.
Examples include The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway; Moby Dick by Herman Melville; The Lord of the Flies by William Golding; The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Choose one of the scenarios below. Then write 100 – 200 words, describing the place from each of the three characters’ point-of-view. You can use either the first person or third person pov.
You should notice differences between your pieces as each pov person will see different things, because of their personal situation ie age, gender, happy, sad, desperate, apprehensive etc.
- A crowded beach: a mother who can’t find her child; a homeless teenager; an elderly man/woman visiting their childhood holiday resort.
- A motorway service station: a young woman/man on their way to university or a new job; a woman/man who has just left their partner; an escaped prisoner.
- A pub: a thirty-something woman/man on a first date; an undercover police officer looking for a drug deal; a man who’s just lost his job.
- A courtroom: A solicitor on his/her first case; a judge who knows he/she is about to be arrested; a witness who is scared to be giving evidence.
- A wedding in a church: The happy bride; the groom who’s expecting his ex to turn up; the ex who’s sitting at the back.
I’ve included some pictures here. You can always find your own but don’t forget the other senses.
“Homework” and opportunities for feedback
- Choose one of the above scenarios and one point of view. Write a story, or part of a story in no more than 450 words. If you’d like a paragraph of feedback from me, please send it.
- If you’d like me to post it on this website for comments from other writers, I’m happy to do that too.
For any comments about my blog or other pages on this website, please use the Leave a Reply box at the bottom of the page. To send in your stories for feedback and/or posting on this website, please copy and paste them into the main body of an email (no attachments, please) and send to: firstname.lastname@example.org