The Role of Causation and Plot Structure in Literary Fiction

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Today’s post is by author and developmental editor Harrison Demchick (@HDemchick).

A few years ago I was visiting a local writers’ group giving a lecture on narrative structure, in particular the role of cause and effect. It’s the sort of thing any editor or creative writing teacher is going to touch on in some form or another: Causation is the driving force of narrative. Each plot beat is in some respect the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.

But as I began to provide examples, a woman raised her hand and asked a very important question: What about literary fiction? What about character drama? These chains of cause and effect don’t seem nearly so prevalent in quieter, less action-oriented genres.

She had a point. So many resources you’ll find on writing plot focus on genre fiction and thrillers. My talk was no exception: I was highlighting examples from Ghostbusters, Jaws, and Spider-Man. The reason is that the mechanics of plot are far easier to see in action-oriented narratives. The hero needs to follow the clues to find the bomb before it destroys half of Manhattan. The zombies have broken through the door and our pack of plucky survivors need to move quickly to survive. In a well-constructed thriller, it’s very easy to see how each moment leads to the next, and very easy to explain it.

But that’s not what everyone wants to write. It’s not what everyone should be writing. In focusing on those examples, I’d neglected something very important: Yes, causation is fundamental in character-driven literary fiction too, but it doesn’t look the same. It’s subtler. It’s quieter. And we editors need to be precise in defining how the mechanics of plot relate to literary fiction as well.

Character is plot

Most well-written thrillers are going to have a character arc. But one of the fundamental differences between most thrillers and a lot of literary fiction is that in literary fiction, quite often, the character arc is the primary narrative. Understanding that is important in understanding as well how causation drives character.

Imagine a story covering years in the life of a college professor. Fairly early in the narrative, his wife dies. Five years later, his poor habits and half-hearted lectures have the dean calling for his resignation.

Now, did his wife’s death cause him to lose his notes for last week’s lecture? Of course not. But it did change him. It left him less passionate about what he does. Five years on, maybe he’s a good deal more cynical about the world. Maybe he doesn’t see the point in trying.

The causation, then, is not in the direct plot connection between cause and effect, but rather cause and effect over time as reflected in small but meaningful shifts in character.

Circumstance and happenstance

In most commercial fiction, happenstance is the opposite of causation, reflecting plot beats that occur not due to preceding events but by the whim of the author. But life itself introduces new and unpredictable circumstances, and it’s not wrong for literary fiction to reflect this. Take, say, a film like The Shawshank Redemption (adapted by Frank Darabont from Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), where much of the latter action hinges upon a new character who just happens to have spent prison time with the true culprit of the crime for which protagonist Andy Dufresne has been falsely imprisoned.

Were this a novel about how Andy gets out of prison, this could easily come across as forced or contrived. But The Shawshank Redemption is a steady character drama set over decades. Because the actual story is the changes in the character and his circumstances and how this influences subsequent decisions and action, our focus is less on the happenstance of the development and more on Andy’s response, which is absolutely the result of a subtle but consistent chain of cause and effect.

In literary fiction, then, the notion that every plot beat is the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows is a good deal looser. You don’t want all action to come out of the blue, but you accept that events can occur outside the protagonist’s control and ken. And if Andy hadn’t been through everything else that precedes this new character’s arrival, he wouldn’t be in a position to learn what this character knows or to respond to it the way he does, both as a matter of character and as a matter of plot.

So happenstance doesn’t supplant causation. Happenstance is used to support and develop causation.

Nonlinear storytelling

Now let’s make things really complicated. How do you establish the principles of causation and narrative structure in a story in which events are revealed to the reader out of order?

Certainly literary fiction doesn’t hold exclusive rights to nonlinear storytelling, but literary fiction is likelier to play around with story structure. The farther you separate one plot beat from the next, the more challenging it is to establish causation and continuity in a way readers can understand and engage with.

But this doesn’t mean we lack structure. It means we need to consider structure on two tracks.

The first is the linear story. However that story is presented to readers, it still needs to be cohesive on its own not only in terms of causation, but also in narrative arc: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.

The second is the story as it’s told. There may not be a narrative connection between two subsequent plot beats for the simple reason that they occur at entirely different times in the protagonist’s experience—but there is nevertheless a thematic connection, or something one plot beat reveals about the other. You, the author, have cause to present these specific moments in this particular order.

The arc, then, is in readers’ understanding of the story. Each beat causes the next in that it causes you, the author, to reveal it. So the action still rises toward that climax.

None of this is to say it’s simple. Balancing a nonlinear narrative can be enormously complicated. You want to be sure readers still have a sense of an advancing plot, character-based or otherwise. That’s why the integrity of the narrative at the core of the story is so important, regardless of the order in which the details are revealed. But there’s an art to nontraditional, nonlinear storytelling, and that art is set firmly in the realm of causation and structure.

So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, don’t get caught in the trap of imagining story structure is not for you just because so many of the defining examples are in different genres. The principle of causation may be less obvious, but it’s no less important—and it may just be the key to crafting a great character-driven story.

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