CAUSE AND EFFECT
by Alayne Kay Christian
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WHAT IS CAUSE AND EFFECT?
Cause and effect is the thread that holds a story together. If that thread is weaved straight through the story with some tension, the reader will be engaged from the beginning of the story all the way to the end. If done right, it will leave the reader feeling like the reading journey was well worth his or her time.
A series of events that are linked by an unbroken chain of cause and effect is often called “plot.” I liken it to weaving a thread through a piece of fabric and then pulling the thread, causing enough tension to create a ruffle. Pulling that fabric toward the end of the thread is the perfection of the finished product. If the thread breaks, the ruffle will go flat. The same thing can happen if the thread of your story doesn’t stay on track with a continuous ramp of increasing intensity via cause and effect.
If you’ve never made a ruffle or seen one made, here is a link to a short video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUwCYYpLyGk
To get a perfectly aligned ruffle, gather B must follow gather A and gather C must follow gather B, and on and on it goes. In a cause and effect story, event B must be caused by a character’s reaction to event A, and event C must be caused a character’s reaction to event B, and on and on it goes. If event B has absolutely nothing to do with event A, then you are not plotting a story; you are creating a patchwork of unrelated or standalone episodes. This is sometimes called an episodic story.
AGAIN, WHAT IS CAUSE AND EFFECT?
- Cause is the event that “causes” things to happen
- Effect is the result of the cause/event.
The most important thing to remember is this type of story has a continual chain of cause and effect where the previous effect becomes the cause. An event causes an action, reaction, or result that leads to another event that causes another action, reaction or result, which in itself is the cause for the next cause and event cycle.
^click image above for better view^
Mother’s flowers break when Ella kicks her ball into the garden. (Ella kicks her ball into the garden “causing” Mother’s flowers to break.)
Ella kicks her ball into the garden is the “cause.” The flowers breaking is the “effect.”
What might that effect cause to happen next? Mother’s flowers break when Ella kicks her ball, so Mother scolds Ella, “I’ve told you ten times, not to play ball near the flowers.”
She takes the ball away and goes in the house, leaving Ella alone. I take the story further below.
A: Cause/First Event: Ella kicks ball
B: Effect/Result of A – Mother’s flowers break
C: New event caused by B – Mother scolds Ella and takes ball
D: Effect/Reaction to C – Ella is upset with Mother and breaks the rules by going to play in the dangerous creek
E: New event caused by Ella’s choice to break the rules in D – Ella jumps in water to play, but water is rushing due to recent rains. It washes her away
F: Effect/Result of E – Mother can’t find Ella
And on and on it goes until a satisfying ending.
Following is a cause and effect cycle diagram of the beginning of the familiar classic JACK AND THE BEANSTALK.
^click image above for better view^
ANOTHER WAY TO LOOK AT CAUSE AND EFFECT
1. Normally, conflict (or an obstacle, problem or desire) is the motivation/CAUSE that puts a series of events in motion. NOTE: SMALL PROBLEMS NEED TO SOMEHOW RELATE TO BIG PROBLEM
2. The EFFECT that the conflict has on the main character occurs when the character reacts (actions driven by the CAUSE) to those events.
3. Each time the character responds to conflict (an obstacle or problem) his response becomes the CAUSE of the next action and then EFFECT follows.
Unfortunately, I don’t have space to go into the topic of story arc in great detail, but I want to touch on it briefly. Although story arc is a different subject, it is loosely related to cause and effect, and it is important to a story. Each new event should be more powerful than the last. This is what some people call “tension.” A protagonist who wants something enough to take action against all obstacles creates “the story” – especially when the reader feels emotion related to the character’s failures or successes in overcoming those obstacles. There is usually a darkest moment before the main character takes his most important action (he has a turning point). That tension, those successes, the emotion, and the turning point can all be built into the cause and effect pattern.
^click image above for better view^
- If you struggle with cause and effect, try analyzing your story backwards. Look for the final “effect” (the final result, reaction, or action). And ask, what “caused” it. Look for the next effect and ask yourself, what caused it? Continue until you get to the beginning of the story. Is your thread running through nice and straight with a tension?
- Test out “cause” by putting the word “because” or “since” in front of it.
- (cause) “Since” Mother was angry and went inside with Ella’s ball, (effect) Ella was angry and went to the creek to play.
- (cause) “Because” Ella broke Mother’s flowers, (effect) Mother scolded her and took her ball away.
- (effect) Ella broke the rules and went to the creek, (cause) “because” she was angry at Mother for taking her ball.
- Test out “effect” by placing the word “so” in front of it.
- (cause) Mother left Ella outside alone with nothing to do, (effect) “so” Ella broke the rules and went down to the creek to play.
- (cause) Jack was too tired and hungry to keep going, (effect) “so” even though he might be eaten by the giant, he begged Cook to let him in.
The following PDF gives a cause and effect analysis of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. This is an example for the writing exercise below. Please note that in this example, I went into the small details of JACK’S story. I did this to show how everything in a story is related/linked from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, scene to scene. In the writing exercise, you may choose to look at the story from a broad perspective (scenes, or three acts) or you may choose to look at it in detail. It is all up to you and what you want to get out of it.
Tracey asked me to provide a writing prompt. But I have decided to provide an exercise instead because I believe it can lead to writing in the form of edits. It can also be helpful in developing new stories.
- Use the following worksheet to analyze cause and effect in your favorite books. Not all books are written using cause and effect, but many successful ones are, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some to analyze.
- Use the following worksheet to analyze cause and effect in your own stories.
- If struggling with cause and effect, use the following worksheet to try analyzing your work backwards, starting with effect and working into the cause for each effect.
©Alayne Kay Christian 2014
Represented by Erzsi Deak, Hen&ink Literary Studio, Alayne Kay Christian is an award-winning children’s book author, a certified life coach, and a blogger. Her independently published picture book
received the Mom’s Choice Awards gold medal and an IPPY Awards silver medal. The anthology Jingle Bells: Tales of Holiday Spirit from Around the World (Melusine Muse Press) includes two short stories by Alayne, Christmas Spirit and Christmas in June.
Alayne is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and numerous children’s book writing courses. Her full resume may be found on her website . Alayne is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is the founder and administrator of Sub Six, a Facebook group intended for supporting and motivating picture book writers with their submission goals. In 2014, she launched the blog series ALL ABOUT SUBMISSIONS for which a team of experienced writers answers other writers’ questions regarding submissions. She is a contributor to KIDLIT411.com, which is a fantastic website designed for making kid lit writers’ and illustrators’ lives easier by taking the best information about writing and illustrating from the Internet and putting it all in one handy spot. She is also a member of Marcie Flinchum Atkins’ WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER blogging team who answers monthly questions about writing.
Alayne has been highly praised for her in-depth picture book critiques. Click here to learn more about her critique service.
After twelve years of helping women move toward their desired lives, Alayne recently hung up her life coaching hat to focus 100% on her writing career. Alayne often combines her coaching skills with her writing knowledge when giving critiques and writing blog posts.
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LAST REMINDER: DON’T FORGET TO JOIN THE SUMMER SPARKS FB GROUP!
Missed a SUMMER SPARK? Don’t worry, you can find them here:
Day 1: In Celebration of Summer Magic by Kelly Milner Halls
Day 2: The Power of Doodling by Alison K. Hertz
Day 3: Cause & Effect by Alayne Kay Christian
Day 4: How to be a Marketing Ninja by Corey Rosen Schwartz
Day 5: A Visual Writing Prompt: Begin at the End by Julie Gribble
Day 6: The Final Word by Jodi Moore
Day 7: Inspiration Station by Susanna Hill
Day 8: Voice and Word Choice in Picture Books by Tara Lazar
Day 9: Platform Building Can You Build It? Yes, You Can! by Tracey M. Cox
Day 10: 5 Ways to Hook Your Reader with Your Very First Line by Kirsti Call
Day 11: Burning Down the House aka Revision by Donna Earnhardt
Day 12: Persistence by Donna M. McDine
Day 13: Writing Your Way to a Spark by Kris Dinnison
Day 14: Hope In Your Heart by Carol Gordon Ekster
BONUS: What Songs Rock Your World? by Claire Rudolf Murphy
THAT’S A WRAP!
Follow-up #1: TIPS
Follow-up #2: 9 Ways to Tighten Your Story
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