I’m a big believer in causation in stories. Something happens and something happens as a result. If you have causation in motion in a story and a character who is willing to make things happen, what you have is a story that is much easier to write. For example, if you have a story that opens with a teenage girl arguing with her parents because they won’t let her go to a Kanye West concert, your story is going to be much easier to write if you have a character who is willing to make things happen. For instance, if she folds her arms and sits on her bed saying “shoot!” about not getting to go, that’s going to be a hard (and possibly boring) story to write because your character isn’t willing to get things moving. If you have a girl who flips her parents off behind their backs then sneaks out, what do you have? The next scene. You’ve got to figure out how to get her to the concert (she’s probably going to need a friend to drive because her parents would hear if she just started her car) which will give you more characters to work with along with a destination, and at some point, you’ve got to get her back home, hopefully to parents who have already called the police, which would make sense for them, wouldn’t it? Overreacting the way they did to a little misogynistic rap.
But what I started this post to say was how causation sometimes gets misinterpreted, when a writer has something happen and then says it causes something else to happen. For instance:
He kicked the tub causing him to cry out in pain.
He diced onion after onion causing his eyes to well with tears.
The sun rose above the trees causing her to squint. He hit a tree with his car, resulting in a broken leg.
I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does. When it’s written out that an action causes a reaction it causes me to grow crazy. I think it’s because I’m such a believer in an active reader who wants to work, and that fiction is about the reader making connections through the writing and not the writer making connections for the reader. When an author tells me point-blank that a stubbed toe causes a character to cry out in pain I think, no shit. Just show me the toe stubbing and then show me the character crying out. I swear, I’ll get the connection.
Did I ever do this in my own fiction? Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m guessing it’s some kind of shadow self of annoyance that makes me pick these things out. I remember a few years into writing when I realized how many extraneous “thats” I had in my stories, to the point I had to do a search and delete. I never did that with “causing” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to at some point.
What about you? What tics do you see in your work and others?
One of the many things I love about my job is that I get to teach a “Special Topics in Creative Writing” class that could easily be renamed “Things I’m Obsessed with that You Should be Obsessed with, Too.” I fell in love with Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction book and designed a class around that. I fell in love with Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and so we spent a semester on that.
One idea I’ve been kicking around lately is centering a fiction-writing class around a single author, looking closely at the body (or at least a portion) of that author’s work to see what he or she has to teach us. The author that most readily comes to mind is Elizabeth Strout who has published novels, stories, and a book of interrelated stories. Plus, brilliant. There would be so much to talk about here as far as character development, structure, and so on. As a starting point, I’ve written here and here about exercises I’ve done around Olive Kitteridge.
One possible problem might be if you don’t like regional writing and cranky women, you might not like the class, but if you don’t like those things, you might not like any of my classes (ba dum bum!). I thought about pairing her with another writer, maybe someone super different like Junot Díaz, whom I also adore, and who would give us the same opportunities to delve into another body of work and talk about the same issues (structure, character development, etc) but see them handled very differently.
Would you like to take or teach a class like this? And if so, what authors come to mind that you’d like to cover for an entire semester?
A colleague told me one time that on a class evaluation a student wrote, “he said ‘um’ 47 times in 50 minutes.” This is one of my worst nightmares: to stand in front of a group of people and have them point out my tics. In addition to a lot of hand waving and water drinking when teaching, I think one of my tics isn’t so much a tic, but a love of repeated sayings. One of my go-to’s: “It’s a pros and cons game.”
So much of writing comes down to making decisions, and while we want there to be an absolute right decision, that often isn’t the case. It’s a weighing of the outcomes, a juggling of the payoff and the drawback. I had a student recently say that he wanted all the scenes to take place in one location because it would emphasize the bleakness of that one aspect of the character’s world. I respect that, but at what cost? Was he missing out on a wonderful scene where the character’s having dinner at a restaurant with his mother, or some other setting that could be viewed and emotionally mined on the drive home? What else could the story offer up to outweigh that decision?
My advice in situations like this is always to write out the scene and see what it gives you. You’ve got to write it out: that’s another thing I say a lot. What’s the worst that could happen? You end up with a scene or two that sucks? So be it, but my guess is you’ll still be ahead in knowing your character and story, even if you decide, in the end, not to include those pages. The best thing that could happen? Endless possibility.
It’s rare there’s only one thing that can happen in a story, and if that’s the case, maybe you’ve written too narrow of a story. Pros and cons. If that happens, do you try to revise it, or write another, better story?