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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Cause & Effect

Or: A Brief and Incomplete History of This Writer’s Life

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

Because my parents decided to move us to Germany in January of 1980, I am without a car on this lovely Wednesday, April 21, 2010.

No, really. I’m serious. Get ready, my dearies — you’re about to embark upon a short, reverse-chronology adventure not unlike the one depicted in the thriller film Memento. Expect enthralling confusion, fascinating mayhem, and a gut-wrenching ending to leave you begging for more.

  • Today, April 21, 2010, I don’t have my car because it’s parked at my parents’ house.
  • My car is parked at my parents’ house because I did my laundry there last week.
  • I do my laundry at my parents’ house because I hate the laundry room of our apartment complex.
  • The hubby and I live in this apartment complex because we chose to live here “temporarily” when we moved from Germany to Oklahoma in 2007.
  • We lived in Germany for 6 years because the hubby had spent a year there before we met, and I grew up there.
    I grew up in Germany because my parents decided to move our family there in January of 1980.

See? Told ya.

Characteristic Digression

Okay, I give. So it’s not quite as edge-of-your-seat thrilling as Memento. My mention of the film is nothing but a blatant attempt to grab your attention and make you think you’re about to read something with enough thud and blunder to knock you right out of your writerly socks. If that brief, reverse chronology of my life left you breathless, you might either want to get your lungs checked, or go outside and spend some time away from your computer. No offense, I’m just sayin’.

Hee hee.

Cause and Effect

Actually, I lied. Memento is more than just my attempt to feed you brain candy. There is a madness to my methods method to my madness, a method upon which I will elucidate momentarily. Pinkie swear.

But prior to elucidating, I give you another film that pertains to today’s article: The Boys Next Door* (the one with Nathan Lane and Robert Sean Leonard, not the one with Charlie Sheen). This movie follows the lives of social worker Jack and the four mentally challenged men in his care. One of the four, Lucien, asks Jack a question we can all relate to. In some form or another, we all pose this query–to others, to ourselves, to God, to the universe at large–probably on a daily basis. Lucien asks:

“What’s the because, Jack?”

In his delightfully childlike way, Lucien is asking for the reason a certain event took place. Something has happened–and he realizes that it didn’t just happen on its own. He knows there is a reason behind the event. He has witnessed the effect–and now he wants to know the cause.

Cause and effect prompt Lucien to seek answers. Cause and effect drive the action of the movie Memento — in which the viewer sees each effect before seeing any of the causes. (I figure quantum physicists must have a heyday with this one.) And my own carlessness triggered my ruminations upon all the causes that led up to my frustrating lack of transportation…causes which I can, at only a slight stretch, follow back to the earliest days of my life. Odds bodkins.

And guess thee what? Cause and effect are going to be a driving force in your characters’ lives, too.

What Is the Because?

As your readers devour your story in its every scintillating detail, they are going to be asking themselves this question. Maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously…but the question will be in their minds from the moment they flip back the cover of your book until shortly before they read those lovely, satisfying, sometimes crunchable words “The End.” Please note, my precious inklings, that I say their questioning will last until shortly before the end — because it’s your job to satisfy them in such a way that when they close the book for the final time, they need no longer wonder about the nature of that elusive because.

Your characters are on an adventure. Whether they’re tromping through the zibarglie-infested Drakken Forest of Doom, or weathering a storm in the Bermuda Triangle, or recovering from a hard break-up in Los Angeles — these people have some major obstacles to overcome. How they face these challenges will be what propels your story forward and keeps your readers turning pages until the wee hours of the morn. But in addition to the how, your readers will also want to know the why. The adventure is the effect; your readers want to know the cause — for they, like Lucien, understand that nothing in your story just happens on its own. They know there is always a cause.  And they will find that cause not within the events of the story, but within the characters themselves.

Why does Alice follow that rabbit in the first place? Why does Oliver have the gumption to ask for more? Why does Edmond keep scraping away at that wall, instead of giving up? Why does Sam insist on sticking with Frodo, why is Juliet so obsessed with this particular guy, and why is Roland willing to sacrifice everything just to get there?

In reading your story, your readers are looking for clues that will answer the whys. Some of these answers lie embedded within your backstory; you might not even mention them directly. But most of the answers are inextricably woven into your characters’ personalities. The Story is the effect…and Who Your Characters Are is the cause. As they live out their adventures, the details of their personalities — their likes, dislikes, beliefs, obsessions, joys, worries, and all — will cause the story to go in all sorts of incredible directions (provided, of course, you’ve done your writerly homework and gotten to know your characters well enough).

Cause and Effect, Redux

In January of 1980, my parents had the guts to move our family across the world to pursue an artistic dream. Their personalities determined the course of our family’s story. Their faith and hope was the cause; a transatlantic relocation was the effect. (As was my lack of vehicle on this 21st day of April in 2010–by a stretch of the imagination.)

What’s the because, writer? Answer that question before “The End” — satisfy your readers’ curiosity about who your characters really are — and you will cause the effect of bringing readers back for more of that gut-wrenching excitement they’re looking for.

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

* The Boys Next Door gets a high WATCH THIS recommendation from Yours Writerly…ly. I’ve watched this film countless times and always come away with a deeper compassion for others and a better sense of firm but permeable boundaries.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

4 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Cause & Effect”

  1. Wow what a post! I am currnetly trying to figure out how to flesh out about 4 scenes of a story that I had in a dream. they don’t seem connected but that is what I am trying to do. I think I got some good ideas from this post.
    Thanks Courtney

    • @Justin:
      You are so very welcome! It’s so good to hear that something I’ve written is triggering someone else’s creativity. You really made my day, telling me that. Thank you!

  2. Although you didn’t mention it, the thing I kept being drawn back to was watching Lost, especially that first season. Back when there were no anwers; only nagging questions. Why, why, why?

    “Why” is a driver. It’s what a reader needs to stay with the story. I’ve been thinking about the whys lately…more now than ever.

    The idea of the “why” and all the mysteries which lie therein are partially what inspired me to do this writing experiment. I’m talking about the CCC challenge that Aaron mentioned yesterday.

    I love stories with mysteries and puzzles. I love seeking the answers to that question: why. So, my next adventure is to work on honing my writing skills to involve more of the whys.

    • Ah, Becca, you’re right–LOST is an excellent example! I’ve found my fascination with the show becoming less in proportion with the decreasing number of whys. (However, I’ll continue being glued to my TV every Tuesday night until the show ends, you can be sure!) ;o)

      I’m in the process of doing some honing, myself–working on my second submission for CCC. It really is a neat challenge and hard work (for me, anyway), and I expect to learn a lot from it!