The Skill List Project: Cause and Effect

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said that we’d look at research but I’ve changed my mind. After seeing Man of Steel, I want to talk about the role of cause and effect in SF stories.

First a few words: I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for “Man of Steel” and I’m not interested in reviewing the movie. Nevertheless, I will discuss some thoughts that the movie provoked, so you may prefer to skip this article until you’ve actually seen the film.

Why?

It’s no spoiler to say that movie contains a number of fights. (It’s a superhero movie. Duh.) And for many of those fights, I don’t know why the winner won.

That’s not good.

Consider the final fight. (Again, I’ll be careful not to give spoilers.) There’s a lot of mayhem and suddenly one character is in a position of superiority over another. Many many people have talked and written about what happened after that…but how did it get to that point? What did either character do to win or lose the battle?

Anybody have an answer? I’ll wait. Dum-de-dum…

Admittedly, I might have missed something. If so, my apologies. But as far as I saw and as much as I can remember, the winner didn’t do anything especially good and the loser didn’t do anything especially bad. They just beat on each other for a while, and then suddenly one person was on top and the other wasn’t. Why?

This drove me crazy. Yes, there’s a type of story where the point is to say, “Stuff just happens; don’t kid yourself there’s a reason.” Fair enough—make your case. But if that is your message, the reader should understand that’s what you’re saying. Otherwise, a story should have a reasonable chain of cause and effect.

Now I’m a forgiving guy; I don’t mind the occasional fluke of luck (good or bad). I’ll even accept wild coincidences in the right type of story—in a pulp-style action adventure, for example, I don’t mind the hero accidentally spotting his nemesis on a crowded city street and leaping into a wild chase scene. But when a hero and a nemesis face off in a climactic battle, I demand to know why the winner wins and the loser loses. Such as:

  • The winner has faithful friends who’ll lend a hand, while the loser has no one truly reliable.
  • The loser is overconfident or wastes time on gloating.
  • The winner has more at stake and is therefore willing to risk/sacrifice more than the loser.
  • The loser is an egotist or narcissist who’s too proud to take some action.
  • The winner is smarter or better prepared.
  • The winner does something clever.
  • The loser does something stupid.
  • The winner overcomes some physical or psychological disadvantage that has been holding him/her back, thereby becoming strong enough to triumph.

And so on. Even if the loser just slips on a banana peel at a crucial moment, at least I’ll understand why (s)he lost. It’s pretty darned cheesy, but at least it’s a reason.

Plausibility

Different sub-genres and types of stories allow for different factors that might be significant—plausibility can vary according to context. In one story, the favor of the gods may be what makes the difference; in another, it may be hiding a gun behind your back.

My point is that the reader should know what caused the result. Whenever there’s a victory or defeat, in a physical fight or any other kind of contention, the reader should understand why the result happened. Even if the cause is plain old luck (good or bad), the reader should understand that.

(And on those occasions when you want the cause to be ambiguous—which can be a fine artistic choice—then dammit, the reader should know you meant it to be ambiguous. There’s a world of difference between a reader saying, “Wow, you’ve given me something to think about,” as opposed to “Huh? WTF?”)

Quite simply, your readers should understand why things happen in a story: they should know the causes behind the effects. This doesn’t have to be complicated; a winner can win by having one more bullet than the loser. That’s easy to understand…and reader comprehension is almost always one of a writer’s most important goals.

Enough Soapbox

Okay, rant over. Next time, I really intend to write about research…unless another summer blockbuster provokes me into a diatribe. See you next month!

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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