It took me so long to realize I needed a causal chain in my fiction. Specifically, it took me a long time to know I should pay attention to cause-effect relationships when revising.
The causal chain is the series of cause and effect relationships that structure your narrative from beginning to end. It’s omnipresent in the fiction you probably read, and that means it’s almost invisible when done well.
The Odyssey website writing tips page is a valuable resource for writers. It says the following about causal chains:
“The strongest plots are created by cause/effect chains. This makes the story feel more like a row of dominoes falling over, unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a series of random occurrences arranged for the convenience of the author.”Jeanne Cavelos
When not done well, a poor causal chain results in events that seem manipulated by the author. The problem for me in 2016 was that I had no idea I was doing it.
Fortunately, after attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I learned all about it.
I learned the discipline of writing stories as a chain of inexorable events, leading up to a surprising, yet inevitable ending.
I want to share that knowledge with you, since it’s so rare to find anything written about the causal chain. That’s why I wrote a writing advice article on this topic for the Writing Cooperative.
It’s called “Why Your Story Needs a Causal Chain.”
The initial impetus for this article came from the following short conversation with the Odyssey Twitter account:
@OdysseyWorkshop @ClarionUCSD In your opinion, what #writing technique has the greatest dearth of advice articles written about it? #writingtips— Matthew Rettino (@MatthewRettino) June 25, 2019
Thanks!— Matthew Rettino (@MatthewRettino) June 29, 2019
I saw this response and, a little while later, went to work:
I went ahead and wrote an article on Why Your Story Needs and Causal Chain. Happy to be of service! 😎https://t.co/TkQKJpltd8— Matthew Rettino (@MatthewRettino) July 17, 2019
There really is a dearth of writing advice on the causal chain. For example, though Plot by James Scott Bell from the Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series discusses the importance of the lead character and the “chords” of fiction (setup, action, reaction, and deepening), there is almost no mention of the importance of tying your plot together into a series of causally connected events.
Pre-Odyssey, Plot was my go-to book for learning about how to write effective plots. But I never learned the most basic facts about plot until I was told directly that causal chains were something almost all dramatically compelling stories must have.
Maybe for some writers, the causal chain comes naturally in the organic process of writing. But for me, and I suspect for many others, it’s an under-examined aspect of writing fiction.
When I learned about causal chain, it came as a revelation, as if I’d been let in on a secret code underlying the realism (yes, even in the fantastic modes I prefer to read!) and compulsive readability of my favourite stories.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to be disproven that almost nothing has been written about the causal chain.
Comment on this post if you find any books that do discuss causal chain, and I’ll collect the links in this post. Thanks!
For those in search of practical tools, you can read to the end of my article for some advice on revising for causal chain.
You can also check Odyssey’s writing tips, specifically, the one on outlining your story plot.
The causal chain is a secret no longer.
Why Your Story Needs A Causal Chain
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