by Laura Backes, Publisher, Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers
When we write fiction, we see the story in our mind long before it's down on paper. We know why our characters are acting the way they do because we are familiar with their past and in control of their future. We understand the significance of every event in the plot. But sometimes we forget to tell our readers.
Successful fiction is dependent on a logical progression of cause and effect. In real life nothing happens in a vacuum; feelings are a response to an event, action is followed by reaction. The same is true in fiction. Three areas where cause and effect are most important are in the presentation of the main character, the structure of the plot, and the story's resolution.
The Main Character
The plot springs from your main character, so this character is the most fully developed and multidimensional person in your story. In order for your story to be interesting, the main character has to encounter an obstacle or conflict, has to want something, or a combination of the two. But the reader must also believe the obstacle your character faces is important. In a sense, this obstacle is the effect of all that's happened before the story started. Mark wants to get on the high school basketball team because he thinks it will make him popular and help him get into college. Why are these things important to Mark? Because his father abandoned the family six months earlier, leaving Mark's mom to raise four kids alone. Because Mark is embarrassed about his poor family, and wants to change his image by becoming a basketball star. Because playing basketball will make him ordinary -- one of the guys. All of these reasons are causes for Mark's desire to make the team, and all occurred before page one of the book.
If you simply tell your reader in Chapter One that Mark is trying out for the team, your reader won't understand (or care) why this is so important. But since you want to start your book with action and not spend the first chapter setting up or explaining your character's motivations, you need to present the conflict and then lay the groundwork as the story progresses. In future scenes between Mark and his family you can show why Mark wants to escape through basketball. But if you neglect to show Mark's background -- the baggage he brought to the story -- the effect of all that baggage won't ring true with your readers.
The Plot Structure
Each scene in your book must be a logical extension of the scene that came before. As you begin a new chapter, ask yourself if you've laid the proper groundwork in previous chapters for the scenes you're about to write. Don't manipulate the plot so your story will conveniently end up where you'd like. If you find your plot twisting in an unexpected direction, go back and revise previous sections so this new development will make sense to the reader. Each climax, moment of suspense or tension in your story should be a direct result of an earlier scene.
If the plot unfolds in a logical, cause and effect pattern, it will end with an unavoidable resolution. Who the character is, how he or she changed during the story, and how that character chose to deal with the conflict should lead to only one conclusion. The reader should be able to look back from the end of the book and see one path that leads directly from the first page to the last. The resolution (the effect of all that's gone before) will be satisfying and believable if the cause is believable. If a character is introduced in the last chapter who holds the key to the solution of the book's problem, the chain of cause and effect is broken.
Writing fiction is like building a house. The foundation must
be strong, and each row of bricks has to stand squarely on the
row beneath. If the foundation -- the premise of your book -- is
shaky, the whole house could cave in. If one wall is higher than
another, the roof will be crooked. Your story as a whole depends
on the strength of each piece, and the entire structure must be
solid for the house to stand.
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