Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cassandra and the Causal Plot

Poor Cassandra was doomed to accurately prophecy but never be believed. This legendary clairvoyant has more to offer the topic of causality than mere alliteration. She raises the question: what makes people believe a prediction? If ancient Greek gods are involved, there’s not much you can do about convincing your audience. But if you’re plotting a novel and want it to seem credible, you need causality—the antithesis of life’s randomness.

In contrast to good or bad luck, causality means that actions have consequences. Foolish or self-centered choices incur costs, while moral behavior eventually bestows a metaphorical pot of gold.

In fiction, causality shows up in two distinct arenas:

~ Foreshadowing.

Cassandra warned the people of Troy neither to welcome gorgeous Helen nor trust the gigantic horse assembled outside the city. The Trojans ignored her—and paid dearly. Novelists, too, must pay for not looking ahead. Unless you sow the seeds for what’s coming, the theme won’t seem any more credible to the audience than Cassandra’s predictions did.

1.      Hint in the very first chapter at the protagonist resources that will produce the ending. Just be sure to hint rather than bludgeon.
2.      Make each scene lead inevitably to the next. Agent/author Don Maass reminds that scenes must be so tightly interwoven that if you remove one, the entire plot unravels. Each scene must cause what follows. No exceptions.
3.      Derive theme from the resolution of the plot. Want your themes to be the icing on the cake? Then directly correlate the protagonist’s choices with what protagonist and reader ultimately discover. Together.

~ Climax.

Whether it’s called “pressure point,” “arc,” “story promise,” or “inciting incident,” the opening impetus needs enough heft to get both characters and readers to the climax.

    1. A credible climax develops from the opening launch.
    2. An empathetic climax involves human actions and decisions. Avoid your own version of Athena forcing the Trojans to quit ignoring Cassandra.
    3. A causal climax reveals how struggle summoned the protagonist’s best. That’s how you earn the ending

Tip: The novel’s opening explosion results in a chain of events that lead the protagonist to the climatic choice, which often resolves the initial dilemma.

You needn’t be Cassandra to know that while readers happily suspend disbelief , they’re terribly unhappy about inconsistency, randomness, or manipulation. Causality helps you view plot as far more fundamentally interconnected than a beginning, middle, and end. Which do you think your readers would prefer?

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