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Blogging Through ‘Scene and Structure’–Chapter 3: “Structure in Microcosm: Cause and Effect”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It’s not at all unusual for this to happen. I’ll be working on a series here on the blog, and suddenly, a fantastic example of what I want to write about falls into my path.

Today, that happened in the form of a video from one of the YouTube channels I subscribe to. As you know, I had a hard time watching Batman v Superman a week or so ago. As someone who isn’t a screenwriter or filmmaker, I couldn’t articulate why it didn’t work on a basic, fundamental level. (I’m sure if I’d spent hours analyzing it, I could have come up with it, just like I do for novels.) Now I don’t have to, because this video does a great job at it.

(h/t Nerdwriter1)

Chapter Section: “Cause and Effect”
Blogging Through
Most of us are familiar with the concept of cause and effect—each event, each action (effect) can usually be traced back to an initiating cause. The car accident was caused by ice on the road. He became a murderer (effect) because of his abusive childhood (cause). Because the human brain always tries to find logic and patterns behind what can seem random and chaotic, we spend a lot of our time seeking to make these kinds of links. We see this in realizing that 90% of a toddler’s vocabulary is made up by the word why.

As fiction writers, it’s not enough to write “it happened.” Because the question the reader wants answered is “Why did it happen?” It happened is nonfiction. It happened is a news report.

Delving into the why—whether it’s known or imagined—is the job of the fiction writer. And as the video above points out, but doesn’t say in so many words, the fundamental flaw in BvS is that we’re presented with moments of “it happened” and no exploration of why.

So a story idea can start out with an idea for an event—an effect. Your job as the writer is to figure out the cause. What set this event in motion? Why did it happen? Then, once you’ve figured out the backstory, the logical underpinnings, that caused that event, you can move forward with your story by moving on to the question that necessarily arises: what is the fallout of this event happening? (In other words, the event itself becomes the next cause—but that’s a discussion for later in this book when Bickham gets into the concept of sequel.)

…this kind of cause-and-effect planning and story presentation does more than simply help the reader suspend disbelief. Because this kind of presentation shows a world in which things do make sense—in which everything isn’t just meaningless chaos and chance—the resulting story also has the effect of offering a little hope to the reader: a suggestion by implication that life doesn’t have to be meaningless, and that bad things don’t always have to happen to good people for no reason . . . a hint that maybe the reader can seize some control of his own life after all, and that good effort may sometimes actually pay off—and our existence may indeed even have some kind of meaning.

(Bickham, p. 13)

Chapter Section: “Stimulus and Response”

I don’t know about you, but every year when I have my physical, my doctor picks up a little hammer and taps my knee, just below the kneecap. This is to test reflex—a.k.a., response. I assume that my response is normal (perhaps a slight involuntary wiggle of my lower leg), because she’s never said anything about it. But think about that scene in cartoons or comedies—the character’s leg usually jerks violently or even comes up and kicks the doctor and a sensitive spot.

This is what Bickham means when he mentions stimulus (hitting with the hammer) and response (movement in the lower leg). But he differentiates this from cause and effect by making it more of an external “transaction”:

  • ● Stimulus must be external—that is, action or dialogue, something that could be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
  • ● Response must also be external in the same way.
  • ● For every stimulus, you must show a response.
  • ● For every desired response, you must provide a stimulus.
  • ● Response usually must follow stimulus at once.
  • ● When response to stimulus is not logical on the surface, you must ordinarily explain it.

(Bickham, p. 15)

So unlike cause and effect, in which the effect can be delayed (but still traceable back to the cause) and which can also be internal rather than external, stimulus and response is much more immediate. Bickham gives an example of one character throwing a ball (stimulus) to another. What is the immediate response of the other character? He catches it. He drops it. He ignores it. Each is a valid response (though, then, cause-and-effect might get into why the character chooses his particular response). But even if the second character ignores the ball, as the writer, you can’t ignore that response—because you want to keep your readers with your story, not have them going off on the tangent of wondering what happened to the ball.

The majority of what we do in writing our fiction is stimulus-response (and, thus, cause-effect on a grander scale). Character A says something, Character B has some kind of response. Situation A happens causing Consequence B.

In order to make these structures logical and allow readers to connect with them, and your story overall, is to provide motivation. Again, it’s more than just “this happened which led this to happen.” Always keep asking why. Why did the stimulus happen? Why did the character have that response? You don’t have to hop into that character’s viewpoint in the narrative to explain why. The reader may not need to know the exact reason why. But you as the author do—because the answer to that question is going to affect and direct where your story goes in the long run.

For Discussion:
What to you, if at all, is the difference between cause-effect and stimulus-response?

How important do you think these two concepts are? Have you ever noticed yourself doing this purposely? Did reading this chapter make you think of certain things you can work on in your work in progress?

What were your thoughts on reading this chapter?

Works Cited:

Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.

  1. Thursday, July 28, 2016 12:16 am

    I remember watching Last of the Mohicans many years ago, and coming out of the cinema awed by the cinematography but with little idea of what the story had been (I might not have had the same issue if I’d read the book beforehand, but I hadn’t).

    Having now watched this video (and the whole boring movie), I wonder if LOTM had the same issue as BvS: too many cinematographic moments at the expense of cause and effect.


  2. Carol permalink
    Friday, July 29, 2016 4:31 pm

    Stimulus-response seems like more of an immediate sequence, as you mentioned, whereas cause-effect can be more overarching. This chapter started reminding me just a little bit of goal-motivation-conflict.



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