Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part IV. Special Challenges for Fiction Writers

Chapter 20. Reversing Cause and Effect

A common mistake made by fiction writers is the reversal of the necessary order of cause coming before effect, action coming before reaction.

In science fiction, you might deal with a temporal paradox. In real life, cause always comes before effect. The effect can’t come before what caused it.

Unfortunately, we can easily reverse them unintentionally in our writing for many reasons. Perhaps we’re trying to add variety to our sentences and we don’t think about what we’re accidentally doing.

When you reverse the two so that the effect comes first, your readers will feel thrown off-balance and disconnected from your writing, even if they can’t always tell you why.

The easiest way to spot this happening is to look for the words aswhile, and when.

They’re often used as connections between things that are supposed to be happening at the same time. Often they’re not actually happening at the same time. Often, you’re messing up your cause and effect.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

As the shot rang out, Ellen covered her ears.

No, she didn’t. Not unless she’s psychic. She couldn’t have done what the sentence says because, until she heard the shot, Ellen had no reason to cover her ears.

The shot rang out, and Ellen covered her ears.

Let me give you a look at another way this could appear.

He blushed as he realized his fly was undone.

Blushing is the result or effect of realizing his fly is undone. This sentence feels odd because the cause and effect are flipped. He realizes his fly is undone, and as a result, his face heats. (Realized is a dangerous word in our fiction for other reasons as well. If you’d like to learn more, check out Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

I’ll give you another example using when instead.

We took cover when we heard him entering the building.

They didn’t take cover at the same time as they heard him entering. Until they heard him entering, they had no reason to take cover. First they heard him entering, and then, as a consequence of hearing it, they took cover.

Even if you do have two things that actually happen at the same time, you should try to avoid connecting them with as because the reader’s experience isn’t “at the same time.” Their experience is linear. Because of the nature of reading, we can’t experience two things at the same time. We experience them in the order they appear on the page. For this reason, you’re best to put the action that ends quickest first and then connect them with a different conjunction.

A corollary of this is when you create a sentence where you’re not suggesting things are happening at the same time, but you’ve still reversed the natural order. Once again, we’ll look at an example so you can see what I mean.

My mouth went dry and a heavy weight settled in my chest as he led me down the hall to meet my birth mother for the first time.

Technically, this can be happening at the same time. This is one of those situations that can justify breaking the linear rule because walking down the hall takes time. There’s time for something to happen as she’s walking.

Here’s the problem. Your sentence structure still needs to reflect the natural order. Even if you want to express that something is happening at the same time, when you write it, you need to give the reader the cause before you give them the effect.

In the above example, we find out our narrator’s mouth is dry and she feels a heavy weight on her chest, but the reader will feel ungrounded because they have no idea what’s causing it. Any time the reader loses connection to the POV character and immersion in the story, it’s a bad thing.

You’ll find this in your writing when your words express that one thing happened temporally before the other, but in the sentence you’ve reversed them. So you’re saying A happened before B, but in your sentence what you’ve written is “B happened because of A.”

You need to write down the cause (A) before the effect (B).

Before we move on, let’s quickly go back to the example above and see one possible way we could rewrite it, keeping this in mind.

He led me down the hall to meet my birth mother. My mouth went dry and a heavy weight settled in my chest.

When you make sure that you’ve kept the natural order, you’ll find you’re also able to better avoid dangling participles and misplaced modifiers.