Cause and effect is the simple one-way relationship between something happening and something else happening as a consequence. For example, the postman steps on a banana skin, then slips and lands on his backside. Cause (banana skin) and effect (a bruised bum). Unless you want to violate the laws of physics this sequence can happen only one way, but if you describe it incorrectly (which is easy enough to do) you can cause your readers some confusion.
Take the following:
“Gerald got up from his leather armchair and stepped to the window. Looking out, his face was briefly illuminated by the headlights of a silver Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.”
The problem with the above is that Gerald seems to have extra-sensory perception. How does he know there’s anything outside to look at? The fact that Gerald gets out of his chair for no discernible reason is jarring. And if he did get out of the chair for no reason, why on earth are you bothering to put it down on paper? It’s surprisingly easy to lose the thread between cause and effect when you’re writing. This is largely due to the author’s vivid mental image of the unfolding events – they have a very clear idea of what’s going on and it seems inconceivable that such a simple story element might be misunderstood.
A better way of writing the above passage would be:
“Seated in his leather armchair Gerald heard a car approaching the front of the house. He stepped to the window, and his face was briefly illuminated by the lights of a silver Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.”
Here cause and effect are clearly stated in the right order: Gerald hears a car, so he gets up to investigate.
Reversing cause and effect is confusing to the reader and, while occasional incidents might not ruin a story, too many will spoil the flow. Think of your story as a path the reader is cycling down, and these inconsistencies as bumps. No-one minds an occasional rattle, but string too many together and it’s like cycling down a cobbled street – an exhausting pain in the backside.
However, like any rule there will be exceptions. For example, sometimes you might want to see the effect, but postpone revealing the cause to build up tension:
"Gerald reeled. He clutched his chair for support as the jackhammer blow to his back flooded his body with pain. His ears ringing, he turned and saw Jenny standing at the door, a smoking revolver in her hand."
Another exception is a surprise event where the effect is felt before the cause is even known. Let’s say that instead of shooting him, Jenny creeps up behind Gerald's chair and explodes a fire cracker under his seat (she’s fun like that). If we were following the story from Gerald’s point of view you could justify describing his reaction before showing the cause, because Gerald would have leapt out of his skin before he was even aware of what had happened.
The proper description of cause and effect can be tricky, but these errors, though minor, can be irritating, and are well worth the effort of seeking out and correcting.
Yet one more thing to add to your revision checklist.
(Image: The Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock)