About Writing: Cause, Effect and Power
No idea where to begin, so I’m going to jump in the deep end here.
Cause and effect. Action, reaction. It’s something I’ve seen discussed in some depth in a number of visual mediums, but less so with prose.
An action prompts an equal and opposite reaction.
A dissonance in that simple, central dynamic can be either a powerful tool or a horrific flaw in the writing.
Let’s talk about the issues first. Without getting into too much detail (which would be a breach of implied confidentiality) something came up recently in a work I was critiquing. I went over a chapter, where a character was assaulted in the street, mugged, their possessions scattered on the ground. The character was hurt, abused and humiliated, but bystanders didn’t step forward to help them. In the wake of the event, the character argued with someone, collected their scattered belongings and made their way to the nearest phone, where they explained that they were mugged.
The cause and effect don’t line up. Being mugged, fearing for one’s life, being injured, there should be a degree of shock, but cogent arguments and an explanation of what happened hint at a fairly firm mental footing, where the character would be justified in being mentally and emotionally off-kilter. This was a character that had probably never been in a real fight, facing an assault that was unexpected and brutal.
Is that kind of reaction always a bad thing? No. Consider the same scenario, but add context. The character might be a veteran or a spy, unruffled by something that’s comparatively minor to the risks to their life they face every day. It could be a powerful device, or a framing for a chapter where the character is abused by bystanders, only to turn around and get revenge in a cold, calculating way.
One shouldn’t forget that the action can (or should!) prompt both a mental and physical reaction.
The flip side of the issue is something that came up in a piece of fanfiction that was sent my way for me to check over. Based on my ‘Worm’ web novel series, it included a famous, respected and feared character within the setting crossing paths with the protagonist. The protagonist runs, manages to slip away briefly, then gets cornered. My complaint was simple – for someone held to this degree of esteem, powerful in every sense of the word, it didn’t fit.
A ‘how to draw comics’ book I read as a teenager covered this issue in a very simple way. You depict one character punching another. Assuming they’re ordinary people, a simple punch generates an appropriate reaction; the person on the receiving end staggers, his face contorting in pain, arms spreading out for balance. If the one delivering the punch is particularly strong, the reaction is out of sync with the blow delivered: the puncher doesn’t even adopt a particular stance, they thrust out one fist, their back straight, eyes not even focused on their target, and the reaction is the same, with the stagger, a face contorted in pain, arms spreading out for balance. Scale up the strength of the attacker to an extreme, and you have someone flicking their finger at a subject, only to generate a geyser of blood, shattered bone and muscle.
The flip side is equally true. A punch, with the puncher in a typical fighting stance, their body drawn in such a way as to show the flow of the movement, the sheer force behind the swing, and the punchee flinches, but doesn’t show pain, doesn’t lose their balance. At the extreme end, you have the weapon hitting harder and the punchee not even blinking. An early scene in Superman Returns film employs this technique, with Superman taking a bullet to the ball of his eye and not even reacting.
In prose, the visual impact is lost, but there’s still room to employ the technique. Maybe more room, in a sense.
People with power can generate the same big effects with small actions, and it’s not limited to beating people up. As a flick of a finger from a person of incredible physical power might do devastating damage, a single word from a person with political power could crush a kingdom. A person with social power could ostracise or doom someone with a gesture or body language. A person with skill can achieve more with less effort. This applies on a number of levels.
Imagine the effect when a person entering a room is enough to quiet arguments, to cow the more bullheaded and stubborn people present, and take the fight out of his or her potential opponents. Simply by being there, they express their innate power.
The inherent power of the character can also be expressed through the medium of the work. For those who don’t know, I studied Applied Language and Discourse in university. I love the moments when I can talk about how the author interacts with the work (the process of writing) or the audience (the cues in the writing that communicate something to the audience without spelling it out in the text), and how the work interacts with the audience in indirect ways. I could go on about this for days, but I’ll throw out one example instead: imagine if, instead of the simple appearance of a character simply bringing conversation and interaction in a room to a screeching halt, their arrival end the chapter?
Or the entire story arc?
Action: making an appearance. Reaction: the entire story stops, for however long it takes the reader to turn the next (or next few) pages.
One has to keep in mind that this implication of power is a fragile thing. The moment the joke character Squirrel Girl gets the better of Thanos, the big bad of the setting, Thanos’ carefully constructed aura of power is shattered. The illusion is broken, the spell ended.
If this happens too often, you get what TV Tropes calls the Worf Effect. In Star Trek:TNG, Commander Worf was depicted as a big, strong Klingon, a crew member on board the Enterprise. But when the time comes for someone to show off their sheer strength, it’s invariably by beating up Worf (typically throwing him ten feet, whereupon he collapses to the ground, unconscious). The idea is an expression of what I described above. If you hit the toughest person in the room once and he’s out cold, you must be strong!
But poor Worf’s durability and toughness are simultaneously worn down by this repeated abuse.
And such was my problem with the fanfiction I mentioned above. Every little thing counts when you’re building that aura of power. The established powerhouse comes across as just a little less stoic if they’re wounded by the new character’s rapier wit, a little less durable if they reel from a blow, a little stupider if the new character successfully eludes them, if even for a while.
In brief: keep in mind that anything that can be used to build an atmosphere of power simultaneously does the opposite when reversed.