We’ve been reading a lot about the curse of 2016. As writers, we’re in the causality business. Those of us who write horror are wise to exploit superstition in all its forms. Just how solid is our grasp of cause and effect, and is it all we need to succeed?
Extravagantly-named logical fallacies like post hoc ergo propter hoc fail to capture how readily we lump things together. A string of celebrity deaths, not impossible when aging baby boomers dominate the media, sets us wondering whether some malign influence is at work. A word to conjure with is ‘apophenia’: not a lost Who album but the all-too-human tendency to look for patterns in static. An audience will make connections whether they’re there or not. Writers need to do better than a sky tuned to a dead channel.
To create stories, we don’t even need cause and effect nearly as much as we need the conflict between fixed and rising action. Fixed action is what usually happens. You can’t make a story out of fixed action alone:
Once upon a time, there was a doctor. She had a white coat and a stethoscope. The End.
Pedestrian stuff. Hence the appeal of rising action, with its battle-cry of ‘WOAH! Look what just happened!’ Alas, you can’t tell stories that only stumble from one sensational escapade to another, though people keep trying. Any story that involves ‘a group of strangers’ is likely not to have taken enough account of who its characters were before the story started—what was their fixed action?
Fiction is simplified yet not, as any writer will attest, simple. It’s life with the fat trimmed but the facts straight. Fiction takes its patterns from life and makes them more recognisable. A great crowd-pleaser is foreshadowing: a coven of witches pitches up and gives Macbeth a prophecy. Cut to him singing ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King!’
Ever since Star Wars, writers have been told to stuff their material into a three-act structure. This is no help at all. The structure that matters is copresence: what is in the story, alongside what else? How does the balance of probabilities change as the narrative goes on?
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to play Chaos. As a pre-Potter wizard, you could choose to cast Law or Chaos spells, and your opponents did the same. Each of these spells altered the environment towards Law or Chaos and influenced the likelihood later spells of the same kind would succeed.
Good fiction obeys the same rules. With or without three-act structure, strict causality produces a chain of meaningless events, full of sound and fury. What we strive for is to make later events seem inevitable given what went before. Inevitable, yet not, we hope, predictable. A friend told me he could see the outcome of my first published story coming a long way off. What should I do? Make dumber friends, most likely, but also: embrace copresence.
Causality is open to all kinds of abuse. Best known are those that produce a litigious society—where there’s blame, there’s a claim—but less discussed is the damage habitual associations do to art. The best way to beat these is and always has been redrafting.
Hemingway sized up all first drafts correctly. Your first idea, if it is even consistent, owes its consistency to the fact you’ve just dumped on to the page a list of recollected impressions, in the order they occurred—or, if you’re a Modernist, in the order you remembered them. In other words, at this point, you have too much causality and too little copresence.
People want to discover patterns. They are willing and able to do this without authorial intervention. Omniscient narration is out of fashion, in the interests of trusting the reader to figure stuff out, but for some reason (Tight deadlines? Low pay? Ennui?) that trust doesn’t rule out unswerving devotion to causality at the expense of looser connections.
The joy of starting to read a novel is that you don’t know how the pieces will fit together. The pain of too many TV shows is that you do know the protagonist’s family is only dwelt on to anticipate kidnapping and/or medical emergency, and the detective’s private life will fill him with zeitgeistly angst yet redeem him in the end.
Let your next story breathe. Trust your reader. There is no conspiracy behind 2016, or if there is, my invitation is still in the mail.