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About Writing: Cause, Effect and Power

May 30, 2013

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.

From → AW01

  1. Another thing is the sort of spiderwebby nature of effects — to use your mugging example, the bystanders are going to have various reactions to what just happened in front of them, even if none of them are “step in to protect the victim”. Unless something deeply strange is going on, they shouldn’t be just disappear from the narrative — some are going flee, some might hang back and then step in to help after the mugger is gone … heck, some might take the opportunity to steal something from the scattered possessions of the character.

    Interesting post, wildbow. Looking forward to more.

    • Thanks, Pb.

      There was more context (and I’m leery of giving it without the original author’s permission), but you’re right.

      To tie back to Worm, you could say that the wide-reaching effects of Leviathan’s visit says a hell of a lot about just how much power he has. He was there for not even three hours, and people in the story are still feeling the repercussions.

      The butterfly effect or ripples of a particular event or action can do a lot to point to the clout someone or something might have.

      Might do a follow-up on reactions, effective reactions and such. Had some notes on them in this post, but it didn’t quite fit.

  2. I’m curious what your thoughts are in terms of balancing reactions with the needs of pacing. I realize that’s a very general topic and boils down, at some level, to the author’s intuition as to which needs to take precendence. Even given that though it seems like there might be some broad warning signs that would be worth keeping an eye out for to avoid going too far in either direction.

  3. Great Greedy Guts permalink

    This is a really good explanation of something that happens a lot in good fiction and tends to get reproduced terribly in fanfic – the way people like Tywin Lannister of GoT has power being what springs to mind. At several points he says something along the lines of “this discussion is over” and unlike what so often happens in real life, the discussion ends.

    Thank you especially for pointing out the use of formatting (chapters and story arcs ending on an action) as an emphasis of a character’s power. I love the power inherent in dividing a story into chapters, but find so often that many people don’t really think very hard about what it means to do it.

    Using your work as an example (the same one you use), one of the things I love about Worm is the Leviathan fight. Up until then, I felt like I had a solid grasp of the flow of the story. I knew where things were going, could see various plotlines and wondered which would be followed up. Instead, Leviathan comes, and everything changes in an instant. Several major characters – or characters set up to be major in the future – vanish entirely, the city is ruined, and soon the reconstruction is upset by the Slaughterhouse Nine moving in (both another example, but also strengthening the influence of Leviathan on the narrative as that attack is the reason for their arrival). That sort of narrative swerve is one of the things I use when recommending Worm (though I try very hard not to spoil anything in the process).

    This is very well put together and extremely interesting to me, and I look forward to seeing what else you have to say on the subject, if you do more of these. Either way, thank you for this. It’s given me something to really think about.

    • Exactly right on the subject of Tywin Lannister. Someone doing GoT fanfiction and failing to give Tywin that clout would find something was missing. They might have all of the character traits, but without the character’s influence being enacted, they’d feel flat.

      Of course, you need a foundation. A student that joins Hogwarts and tells snape off and becomes popular with a single maneuver and sweeps Harry off his feet might be applying these concepts, but without the foundation and verisimilitude, you just get a Mary Sue.

      • Great Greedy Guts permalink

        Oh, yes, cause and effect, as you mention, are important. If a character tells off Snape and sweeps up Harry, they’d better have something coming to them to keep the story moving. Even with Tywin, while he might be able to render people silent and wield great clout, there are many people planning and acting to deal with the power he has. His telling someone to be quiet ends things there, but might set something else in motion further down the line.

  4. I tend to keep it straight mentally in wrestling terminology, actually. I get what you’re saying though.

    Every time Worf gets squashed, it makes him look weaker. Every time it’s done, it’s less effective for getting the new character over because he does the job too often. There ARE ways to get the loser over too, and if done right it makes them both look better.

    After all, it’s more impressive for a monster like Worf to not go down with one punch, but instead stay up and give the kind of fight people wanted to see and know he’s capable of and still lose anyway. His resistance confirms his abilities and strength. His loss confirms that the opponent is worthy or stronger. It has the added bonus of being more satisfying a match.

    Point is, you can build both characters up to get them both over, rather than building on up by just squashing the other.

    And no matter how good a character, nobody likes an invincible heel or face. Hulk Hogan or John Cena come to mind as prominent examples. Not a lot of ability, limited moveset, but they just kept winning and winning, with the fights tending to follow a certain formula. But if your character is never going to lose, or is going to lose once and then win in a fight under the exact same circumstances (not figuring out a new trick, no new insight into the enemy, no hidden weapon), then there’s less drama. The fight is always a foregone conclusion.

    Admittedly, in stories told from the protagonist’s POV, this is kind of a given, but that’s why you have other realistic losses in there too. Other times when the flawed character’s flaws bite them on the rear.

    Good story entertains, so we should book good storylines.

  5. If you ever need to point to someone making this kind of mistake in a visual medium Obscurus Lupa is doing a review of all the seasons of the show Charmed and she hammers it home in each review video that the lack of reactions for the main characters actions makes the show one of the worst pieces of television fiction out there.

  6. bloodposeidon permalink

    WOW this stuff is interesting. The only book off the top of my head is Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs to help explain what your telling us here. With John Carter going to mars and being so strong but almost always being a prisoner and fighting his way out is a great example I think. Plus older books had a more clear distinction of cause, effect and power in my opinion of the ones I have read maybe because the English language was a little simpler in the past by writers? I don’t really know I’m just guessing.
    Plus you can never really know how some readers are going to interpret some things you write so your effect might be off from there thinking of what the cause was. wow I hope that made sense. an example would be me writing about a young couple with a baby I seen in the park. some readers would assume the baby was a mistake from prom whiles others would think they fell in love and had a baby. two different ways of thinking on the readers part so that makes the same story thought of differently. I think what I’m trying to say is if your vague about details your cause and effect wont match up the same to readers so you got to keep that in mind as well.

  7. Bookmarked! Wilbow, you are an inspiration. Literally. Your story got me to start serializing, and even though I’m not great, practice is how one starts. Looking at what you’ve done, I said to myself, looking at the other people who used to write with me, “If one guy can create that, and do so much every week, I can stand to make a measly thousand words biweekly. I’ve given up on so much stuff, writing projects and otherwise, that I’m going to make this last, even if I end up doing it alone. Who knows, maybe I’ll get to a fraction of Wildbow fame.”

  8. This is some really perceptive stuff. I’m definitely going to have to try and make sure I use it in my writing.

    One thing I don’t quite get is how the example from Worm ties in, though? How does the protagonist fleeing and being cornered by this more powerful character demonstrate the thing about cause and effect? Is it just that the protagonist immediately fled rather than pausing awestruck? Or something else?


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