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Cause and Effect 2 – by Lara

At present the scenes read a bit like a laundry list of events/happenings or situations[1] (a story), which is not the same thing as a plot. Ian Briggs says[2], “We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’”

You might get away with a few broken causal links, but having too many will result in your story feeling episodic. This happens when “each story event starts, plays out, and then finishes up with few or no links to other story events. If your story feels more like loosely linked vignettes rather than a flow of events caused by and causing other events, you may be writing episodes rather than a fully integrated story[3].”

If you’ve watched a variety of TV shows, you may note that some of them have threads that span many seasons in the series (e.g., Lost, Babylon 5, in which case episodes aren’t standalone and can’t be watched out of order without a loss in understanding), while others consist of self-contained episodes (e.g., CSI, Law & Order, in which case you can watch them in any order). In the former examples, characters are profoundly impacted by the unfolding events, leaving them both in a new situation (external / plot) and permanently changed (internal / character arc). In the latter, characters tend to remain static.

In other words, episodic[4] stories don’t follow a cause and effect trajectory[5]. In such stories, events can be shuffled around because a particular incident doesn’t really cause the next[6]. If you want to have a story based on cause and effect (a good idea), then what happens at the beginning of the story must influence what follows.

            So, one question you should be asking of each of your scenes is, how are they connected by cause and effect? How does one scene/event/decision trigger the next?

If you’ve already decided what’s going to happen in your story (external), then you have to find a way to link those events via cause and effect, being careful not to simply have your characters acting as pawns to carry out your preordained plot. In other words, make sure your characters have free will and that their decisions match, not just the plot points you’re trying to achieve, but their personalities and motivations as well. Also be sure that what happens affects them on a soul-deep level (internal). This is where you might realize that a character’s wound (or flaw or fear or whatever) isn’t something arbitrarily decided upon, but rather, like all other facets of a story, it’s something to be purposefully designed. If you know the obstacles/conflict Elijah will be facing, brainstorm wounds/fears/flaws that will make those obstacles particularly hard to overcome.

Some of the scenes in your list show the potential for a solid cause and effect connection. Be aware, however, that even if scenes can be phrased in such a way as to show the causal connection, being able to write such a statement doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Consider: “Because Elijah witnesses the mistreatment of Asherah slaves, he decides to make sure Milcah is safe.” The cause is Elijah’s observation of the Asherah slaves (and everything else presented in the last sub, including his fear for Milcah’s safety). The effect is Elijah’s decision/goal to visit Milcah and make sure she’s safe. It sounds solid, but the effect (Elijah’s motivation and new goal) is only as strong as the cause that sets it in motion. He sees the Asherah slaves, even mistakes one of them for Milcah, but—in a sense—so what? Readers will be more interested in real problems than in vague worries. I already talked about this in my last crit, so I don’t want to beat it again here. Just be aware that it’s not all about the phrasing, so spend some time thinking about how strong that cause and effect link is. For example, does the cause all but force Elijah to act/react? If not, maybe the cause isn’t strong enough.

[1]    See http://timothyfish.blogspot.com/2010/10/plot-vs-situation.html : “A situation is the current state of things. For example, if you wreck your car then you have a situation. If you meet an important person, that’s a situation. If you have a disease of some kind, that is a situation. As unusual as your situation may be, it doesn’t guarantee that writing about that situation will produce an interesting story. Plot is what happens in a story. The plot makes or breaks the story. We may begin with a situation, but we have to work it into a plot.”

[2]    See http://www.storyinsight.com/techniques/media/forster.html

[3]    See http://theeditorsblog.net/2016/03/22/making-plot-less-episodic-a-readers-question/

[4]    St. John Quotes:

* Pg 20 footnote: “Episodic means that scenes don’t relate to each other and have been strung together without purpose. I knew a writer who made lists of things she thought would be great to write, wrote the scenes, and then tried to connect them. The stories she came up with were disconnected and rambling because the scenes weren’t tied together. Every action has a reaction, so each scene must spring from the previous one.”

* Pg 45: “AVOID EPISODIC EVENTS: Events lined up one after the other don’t make a story. Events are given significance by how they affect the characters. Small annoyances, trivial events, or coincidences grow monotonous. These are examples of conflict for conflict’s sake, and they will wear out or bore your reader.”

[5]    (which should be both internal and external) → External: The characters outward situation changes. Internal: An external event creates at least a small internal change in the character, whether changing their motivations, their emotions, their goals, their knowledge/understanding, or whatever.

[6]    Or, if focusing on the internal change (or lack thereof), an episodic event doesn’t affect the character or their decision. In plot, the converse is true and the internal and external are integrated: One event triggers the next event. Or, if we’re considering a plot involving the interplay between protagonist and antagonist, one event/action, let’s say by the antagonist, triggers first an internal reaction and then an external reaction (decision, new goal, new action) from the protagonist, which in turn affects the antagonist.

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The Days of Elijah - a story

The Days of Elijah – a story