As you have already learned through life experience, everything living is moved by the forces of cause and effect. We see this play out in nature when exposure to sunlight makes a seed grow or when birds mating results in a fertilized egg. A simplified story example of a cause-and-effect chain could be the following:

Jennifer forgets to turn the stovetop off; she is distracted and burns her hand. She goes to the hospital to treat her 2nd-degree burn, but because of that, she doesn’t have time to pick up her brother from football practice as she had planned. Because Jennifer doesn’t pick the brother up, he has to walk home and ends up being kidnapped. Haunted by guilt, Jennifer falls into a deep depression and ends up being admitted to a mental institution, where she meets the love of her life.

All this started with forgetting to turn the stovetop off.

Let’s examine the same story but leave out a few links from our chain and see what happens:

Jennifer forgets to turn the stovetop off; she is distracted and burns her hand. Her brother walks home and ends up being kidnapped. Jennifer is admitted to a mental institution, where she meets the love of her life.

At first glance, some of you might ask what’s wrong with the story. Nothing about the sentences is incorrect or untrue, but it is not a CHAIN of events. Jennifer burning her hand, her brother being kidnapped, and Jennifer meeting the love of her life are all completely separate events that are in no way related to each other. The latter example is no longer a story; it is merely stating facts.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” -Sigmund Freud

There are many elements to an interesting story, but one of the fundamental building blocks is that your story follows a chain of events related to each other. What we are talking about here is the basis of a good (interesting) story. You want your audience to crave more, you want them to start guessing what might happen next, and you want them to be able to justify (or at least understand) why things happen the way they do in your story. There is an internal logic to the world, to a character and to the story that you, as the writer, MUST follow.

You might think, wait a minute, Maxima, we humans don’t always behave logically, and you would be right. We don’t always behave logically in terms of what is the reasonable thing to do, but we do always behave based on our experienced past. Unless you suffer from severe dementia and only remember how to sustain your vital bodily function, everything you do, say or think will be, in one way or another, influenced by your past (past links in a chain called your life).

What I mean by the story having to follow an internal logic is that every event has its designated origin. Let us follow an example to simplify what I mean:

When Peter was a toddler, he ran after a colourful butterfly and fell down, breaking his wrist. As an adult, he might or might not dislike butterflies, but if he does, it is likely this dislike was caused by his childhood events.

Because everything matters in a story, you must give the reader a plausible explanation as to why things are the way they are, even if that explanation is merely hinted at. Another example:

Peter was brutally rejected by his first crush in school, and this led to him being cautious around women. Later in life, he meets a nice woman he settles down with, and they are very happy together, but whenever the couple run into a disagreement, Peter tends to shut down and regress into avoidant behaviour.

While you don’t have to recite Peter’s entire life events to the reader, it is important for you to know all of your story’s meaningful links. That is to say, you don’t have to tell the reader everything in the previous example but knowing it all will help you choose what hints or clues about his past you want to share because you cannot just write about Peter being a shy avoidant man around women without any explanation whatsoever.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as the late Sigmund Freud once said. This means that you don’t have to explain absolutely everything in your story. A good general rule is to explain a thing if it relates, in a meaningful way, to the arc of one of your main characters or if knowing the thing explains or enriches the plot of your story.

“Plot is a chain of cause-and-effect relationship that constantly create a pattern of unified action and behaviour. Plot involves the reader in the game of “Why”.” -Robert B Tobias

Structuring your story using the plot chain doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t throw some curb balls, you absolutely should! But nothing can happen out of the blue (remember foreshadowing), and everything must abide by the universal law of cause-and-effect (plot chain).

You should have subplots, but they MUST be related to the primary plot in some way. The subplot must advance the primary plot, the character arc of some main character, create more twists for the primary plot or add considerable depth to the primary plot in one way or another. Subplot is to the primary plot what a secondary character is to the main character (support).

I write about the importance of past, present and future in my previous post, How to Write a Believable Villain. You can check it out here. Also, my post, What Makes a Good Story which you can find here, has some great tools for mapping your story in a coherent way.

As I have said before, if your story is very complex and multilayered, with several subplots, the easiest way to make sure your plot chain is intact is to map it out.

  • That means grabbing a pen and literally drawing a timeline of your book on a piece of paper.
  • Add the primary plot and subplots, then bullet point the cause-and-effect events.

By the way, you can use the same method when checking character arcs.

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