Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are You Confusing Readers With Poor Cause and Effect?
As the creators of our story worlds, authors are privileged with a certain amount of inside information. We almost always know what’s going to happen to the characters before an event actually occurs. The readers and the main character might not have seen that left hook coming from the antagonist, but we authors saw the bad guy sneaking up on the protagonist long before his actions manifested themselves on the page. Because of this inside information, it’s all too easy for us to risk confusing readers by showing the effect of an action, before we show the cause itself—such as in the following example:
Cora opened the window to yell at her son. He stood next to the fire hydrant across the street, even though she’d told him about a million times to stay in the yard.
At the beginning of this paragraph, the reader has no idea why Cora is yelling. They don’t know her son is across the road, anymore than they know Cora had instructed him to stay in the yard. Here’s an even more subtle example of transposition:
Cora jumped and whirled around when the fire hydrant exploded.
The reader sees Cora jump, but he has no idea why she jumped. At first glance, this may seem like a niggling problem. After all, the reader has only to read to the end of the sentence to discover why Cora reacted as she did. But by transposing events, even momentarily, you’re blocking the reader’s view of the story. In his article “3 Secrets to Great Storytelling” (Writer’s Digest, January 2011), bestselling thriller author Steven James explains:
As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that.
Often, writers show the effect before the cause out of simple negligence. Because we know what’s happened, the lapse in linearity doesn’t present any confusion for us. However, some authors purposely transpose cause and effect in a mistaken attempt to create suspense:
Elliot stared in shock. This couldn’t be happening. If only he’d known, he might have prevented it. Heart pounding, he sank to the curb. In front of him, police cars surrounded his brother’s crumpled Camry.
This is a technique that works only in a rare handful of instances (chapter beginnings occasionally being one of them). But, more often the not, the result is reader frustration over your refusal to share the information the character is receiving as he receives it. If you can strengthen the narrative of your story by showing a logical progression of cause and effect, you’ll end up with leaner prose, more honest character reactions, and more involved readers.