Monday, September 29, 2014

Cause and Effect in Prose

Based on the title of this post, you can probably figure out which of the following two lines is better and why.

     Diego raised his hands in the air when he turned and found a soldier pointing an AK-47 at him.
     Diego turned and found a soldier pointing an AK-47 at him. He raised his hands in the air.

In the first line, we are told that Diego is raising his hands in the air before we find out the reason for it. The effect is given to us before the cause. While the line does make sense, it doesn’t flow as smoothly as the second line does, where cause and effect are given in their natural order.

Our minds are well-trained to identify cause and effect. As we discussed in this post, readers generally don’t need authors to explicitly identify what stimuli caused what effect; they can put two and two together. However, this is always easier to do when the cause is shown before the effect. Generally, you’re best off constructing your sentences and paragraphs so that cause and effect are shown in their natural order. The result will be clearer, more window-like prose (as discussed here), which will be easier for your readers to read and internalize.

You may be tempted to shrug and dismiss this advice as obvious—it seems natural and instinctive, after all. I mean, really; what writer would put effect before cause? All of them.

Writers tend to jot down sentences as they come to mind, and they don’t always come to mind in the most logical or lucid format. If you’re dwelling on the effect, you may put it down first without thinking, no matter how well-practiced an author you are. I still do it, and I’ve been editing for years.

So take a look at your latest draft. Read it out loud, and pay particular attention to cause and effect. Odds are good that you’ll find a few out-of-order sentences or paragraphs, and now you’ll know what is wrong with them. Good luck!

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