Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Story is Fundamentally about Cause and Effect

Writing Wednesday

Ernest Hemingway once won a bar bet that he could write a story in only six word. His words were:
"For sale: baby shoes. Never used."
Like many other bar bets, it's impressive, but not quite what it seems to be. In particular, Hemingway's "story" isn't a story, it's a story prompt.

"What," you may ask, "do you mean? Why does the distinction matter?" You may even observe that each two-word phrase sounds roughly analogous to an act in a three act structure, where each new act takes us in a different and more dramatic direction.

What I mean by "story prompt" is that I have yet to meet anyone who isn't intrigued by those six words: they can't help speculating and filling in details to create a story in their own mind. And the story is always about what caused the effect of someone in the possession of baby shoes that were never used.

And that's the critical point. Story is fundamentally about cause and effect.

J. Michael Straczynski often uses this example:
The king died and then the queen died. (Not a story)
The queen died because the king died. (story)
Naturally, there's a great deal more to a satisfying story (or, more to the point, one for which people will pay money). Indeed, a novel will describe many causes and effects--though you may be more familiar with the writerly terms, "action" and "resolution."

Don't be mislead by the siren song of the "literary" and their conceit that a nuanced character study is superior to the plot-driven commercial offerings. Even a character study is about the causes and effects of the character's beliefs and behaviors.

Next time you think about your story at a high level, ask yourself if the causes and effects are clear and actually move the story in the direction you want it to go.

Image: Simon Howden /

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