Hey, uh, if you’re looking for the Last of Us review, then I suggest that you move on. I could make some joke about how I didn’t even care about catching the review train yesterday, but the reality was just that I forgot. I was celebrating the completion of my 100,000 word first draft of Praetors of Lost Magic: Name of the Infinite over the weekend, and as it turns out, Guild Wars 2 can be very distracting.
But I have to fill in for the absence of a review, and I promise you’ll get one tomorrow. Word of honor as a writer. (and if you know anything about writers, I suggest you sleep with one eye open…) In its temporary place, I give you a short piece on Cause and Consequence, something required to give your story gravity.
What happens when you push a glass of Mountain Dew off the kitchen counter? Well, multiple things. The glass will fall and possibly break. The liquid will certainly be spilled. Depending on who the glass belonged to, someone might bark at you. Everyone will gasp and say, “why did you just push that drink off the counter?”
In real life, actions have consequences. If you want your story to have the measure of realism you think it deserves, you can’t act like your characters’ actions happen in a vacuum. If I could sit down and list 3-4 repercussions a narratively relevant decision probably would have had, you have a crisis on your hands.
When your alpha readers are left asking you “well what about X”, you probably haven’t dealt with 100% of the things that you’ve introduced. One common cause of such a reaction is when you introduce a cause but don’t fully address the effect. It’s like when you push the glass of soda onto the floor and it just phases out of existence before it hits the ground.
For example: if Dustin Dashington and Gloria Goodlooks are planning a military coup of the kingdom and it succeeds, what might be the repercussions of such an action? How would the parliament/senate/other ruling powers react? How would the people react? Who would resist? Wouldn’t there be loyalist factions or lobbyists to protest the takeover? Who would rule the kingdom? How would the military take their new leader? How would the new leader(s) conduct themselves?
Like I said, real-world actions have more than one consequence. After all, it’s one action: logically, it should spawn exactly one consequence, intended or unintended, that must be dealt with before moving forward, right?
This is an oversimplification of the way the world works. Generally, there is one prevalent consequence of a given action, but in no case is it the only consequence. That’s a surefire way to make your world seem dead: make every choice have one and only one consequence, and everything your characters do seem to happen in a vacuum.
But this problem is twofold: “Fine!” You say. “I’ll consider all the consequences that can be rationally expected from the actions of my characters. Happy now?” Well, dear reader, I am a narcissist who believes that true happiness cannot be achieved, but I digress: we must not only tell of the consequences…but also show.
For example: it may be mentioned that the parliament is in uproar after Gloria and Dustin’s takeover of the Kingdom of Happiness, and that they may even plan to resign, but this is mentioned in passing and the parliament is never mentioned again, despite the reckless things Dustin and Gloria go on to do in their tenure as king and queen.
It doesn’t matter if you tell the reader the Parliament is considering going rogue if that never actually happens. However, if you include a scene where the Parliament call Dustin to order and testify against him, saying he’s unfit for kingship, you cause the reader to come to grips with the actual gravity of the situation. Worse still, if Dustin invokes an ancient law that lays off all members of parliament, then that would be a natural consequence of his rise kingship. Mission accomplished, right?
Actually, no. What would happen if the king shouldered the responsibilities of a 50-person parliament, himself having no real governing experience? Well, nothing good, that’s for sure: Dustin would become a tired, nervous wreck: he’d work 16 hours a day on trade disputes and law proceedings and foreign affairs. He’d grow cranky and tired, and would no longer have time to hang out with Gloria.
But it gets deeper than that. As we go further down the cause-and-effect chain, Dustin grows too preoccupied with his duties to pay attention to Gloria, whom he snaps at when she tries to talk to him. Eventually, she decides to leave his side and become a common mercenary once more, leaving Dustin a vengeful, tired old man.
You wanna take this hole deeper? Dustin grows angry and scours the countryside for Gloria, but doesn’t find her. He takes his rage out on the populace, levying heavy taxes and becoming a warmonger. Maybe he starts bedding multiple women and acquires a drinking habit, trying to forget the miserable life he’s led.
Just to show you that I can take this rule to the maximum, Dustin’s health deteriorates between drinking and stress until he dies in a stroke, only 57 years of age. He’s buried with few mourners…one of them being Gloria, the former queen. She then decides to be a sort of guardian angel to Dustin’s six-year-old son, who was one of the few to ever love the broken man.
I have taken a cause (military takeover) and have led it to its eventual effect (tragedy), and suddenly the world feels alive. These feel like real people, with real wants and desires, carrying out real goals in real time. In other words, your world feels alive and busy with life–its own little reality.
Causes have consequences, and consequences effect the course of the story. If you want your story to feel alive just the slightest bit, you need to follow this rule.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!