Things Don’t Just Happen: On Cause and Effect, In Fiction Anyway

Do you believe in serendipity? Happy coincidences shaping your life?

Do things just happen to you? Or has a chain of decisions and actions brought you to where you are today?

A combination of both?

Randomness may have a place in real life from time to time — and even that we could argue about. But in a tale worth reading, setting and life circumstance exert increasing pressure on the characters, who then push the plot ahead through their own actions, creating a chain of cause and effect. In great books, every detail, every would-be happenstance is laden with meaning and purpose.

I have been reading a few too many manuscripts lately where too much happens suddenly. Holes cover

Suddenly a character goes from happy to angry; then just as suddenly, the emotional storm has passed.

Suddenly a character wants something she did not want before. Why?

Suddenly a protagonist in need is rescued by Deus Ex Machina.


For a great study on cause and effect, look no further than a children’s classic, Holes, by Louis Sachar.  The book is filled with surprising, unlikely happenings that include a waterless lake, two separate generations-old curses and survival in the middle of the desert. And yet, the reader believes every single event because it doesn’t just happen – it flows out of circumstance and character.

When Stanley Yelnats, finds himself at Camp Green Lake, a dried-up lake bed in the middle of a desert where troublesome youth are sent to rehabilitate themselves by digging holes, we learn that he is there for a crime he did not commit, as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It all seems so coincidental, doesn’t it? And yet, the reader finds out that everything about the story’s initial situation has a definite cause. The lake’s dryness can be traced back to a doomed romance of long ago, an event that eventually led to the digging frenzy, followed by the whole idea of Camp Green Lake.

Stanley with lizardsMuch goes on in the story that I don’t have room to analyze here. But you can go back to it on your own, pick out any event — anything at all — from the pair of stolen shoes falling on Stanley’s head “from the sky,” to his family’s rotten luck, to him finding the treasure at the end of the story — and you will easily be able to trace a cause that led to that event.

This is what I call marvelously tight plotting! As connections between various plot strands tighten, the pressure on the characters intensifies, and the reader’s fascination grows. Action builds upon action, each deeply rooted in character, until it all comes together in an exciting climax, where each wild and surprising event makes perfect sense.

Sure, great works of fiction, (as well as not so great ones), have been built on circumstance. Right now I am thinking of a young adult romance, The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith (Little, Brown, 2011,) which is about a girl who misses her JFK flight and meets her “true love.” But even though the inciting event, missing the flight, is coincidental, the rest of the story builds on the characters’ evolving emotions, which lead to their decisions and actions and form the basis of the story’s plot. I don’t remember which one of our Vermont College of Fine Arts teachers said  — I am pretty sure it was Tim Wynne-Jones — that our stories are allowed one coincidence, which is the event that launches the adventuAfter that, let’s try our hardest to stick to cause and effect!

Sure, serendipity can be exciting. But in the end, books like Holes leave the reader with an optimistic, uplifting sense that everything we do matters. Maybe in real life we can’t make every action count, (though we sure can try!) But in creating fiction, we can – and we must.


6 thoughts on “Things Don’t Just Happen: On Cause and Effect, In Fiction Anyway

    • I know, right? Sometimes I think that book holds an answer to just about every craft question there is! But plotting, of course, is at the top of the list of things he did so well here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s