From the day you started writing your novel, you’ve been excited to reach the scene. The moment of confrontation between your main characters. The explosion of rage and anger (or possibly love and lust, depending on your story!) building between them from the very first page. But even though your writing is sharp, and the dialogue clear and convincing, the scene doesn’t have the emotional impact you intend. You want this scene to happen. You need it to happen. But the narrative you’ve written has left one important question unanswered: Why does it happen right now?
Last month, we discussed how narrative is a domino reaction built around the principle of cause and effect, every plot beat the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows. Cause and effect is the engine of narrative. If that engine doesn’t appear to be running, there’s a good chance that you have problems with causation in your novel. But how do we identify such problems?
That’s the question we’ll answer in this second installment in our series on cause and effect. We’ll do this by exploring two different problems: effect without cause and cause without effect.
[Missed the first part of this series? Start here.]
Effect Without Cause
As a professional book editor, I recently worked with a client’s novel in which any of a dozen different plot points—a car breaking down, a departing roommate, a career opportunity—felt in some respect abrupt and out of place. It’s not that the scenes were poorly written—in fact, they were often very well-written. It’s not that they didn’t fit the story either. It’s that all these scenes, all throughout the novel, evoked the very same question we noted above: Why now?
We ask that question due to problems with causation, in particular, the absence of cause.
I’ve written before about what I call “the Godzilla Effect.” The concept is this: You can’t create a great climax just by dropping Godzilla into whatever story you happen to be writing. It may be exciting, and it may be surprising, but the climax doesn’t work if it doesn’t emerge naturally from the events of your novel.
The same is true of all plot points. Everything that happens should be the effect of what precedes it. If readers don’t understand why that car is breaking down now, or why the roommate is leaving now, or why the career opportunity has come up now—if much of the action of your novel has its basis in events that originate outside our chain of cause and effect—then what we’re seeing is problems with causation in your novel, in this case, effect without cause. And a story in which events just happen lacks the momentum cause and effect provide. It’s a lot less engaging for the reader.
In short, it’s not the scene that isn’t working—it’s how you got there. So, your revisions have less to do with the moment in which the problem is experienced than in the chain of cause and effect leading up to that moment. Examine that chain and see what specific plot points can be changed or added to cause or set up the moment in question.
Cause Without Effect
But sometimes the problem with causation in your novel isn’t just about why now? The problem is, instead, why at all?
The great Russian author Anton Chekhov famously wrote, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” His focus was economy of storytelling—the notion that every sentence must be essential—but the concept we call “Chekov’s gun” is also very relevant to causation. A setup that never pays off—cause without effect—can be every bit as problematic in a narrative as effect without cause.
Consider that special scene mentioned above: Your main characters finally confronting one another or coming together in some way. The scene may be well-written—brilliant, even—but if we reach the next scene and both characters are still behaving exactly the way they were before, and interacting with one another the way they were before, then naturally readers are going to wonder what the point of that supposedly pivotal scene was.
The same can be true of any scene. Why did the car break down if the protagonist isn’t going to miss an appointment or sink unavailable money into the repairs? Why is the roommate moving out if she’s still going to be around all the time anyway as if she still lived there? Why does the career opportunity come up if the character isn’t going to consider it or even think about it ever again?
Cause without effect is like a single domino set up beside, but not within, a domino rally. If you can remove the domino from the floor without affecting the rally at all, then the domino isn’t necessary. If you can remove a scene, a sequence, or even a moment from your manuscript with no notable effect on the surrounding action, you can be pretty confident that cause without effect is the problem. And like Chekhov says, if the gun isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there in the first place.
Rebuilding the Dominoes
So now we know that when a scene you’ve written isn’t working, it’s a good idea to ask both of these important questions to identify problems with causation in your novel:
- Why now?
- Why at all?
These together make up an essential part of my professional book editing toolkit, and you’ll find they help steer you as you work too. They’re different questions, but they share the same wrong answer: I don’t know. If neither you nor the narrative itself can answer these questions, you have some revisions ahead of you.
But how do you make significant revisions to a manuscript without screwing up the rest of the structure you’ve already crafted?
That’s what we’re going to address in the next installment in our series on cause and effect, “How to Revise and Improve Your Narrative Structure.” For now, consider: Have you ever written a plot beat that turned out to be effect without cause or cause without effect? How did you resolve the problem? Share your favorite tips with our readers in the Comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.