Recently, my students asked about creating strong plotlines. Remember, narrative is a sequence of cause and effect. Stories are formed by an interlinked sequence: Event A causes Event B (and so on). To reinforce both action (external) and emotional (internal) plot movements, build tension, and create strong drama, a writer needs to be mindful of the story’s causal chain.
Harrison Demchick (The Writer's Ally) offered a wonderful analogy on this concept. Think of plot as a twisted layout of dominoes, and every plot beat in your narrative is a single domino. The first domino is the inciting incident, and once tipped, it launches a succession of plot beats. This is the rising action. Over the course of the story, there are complications, subplots, and dramatic turns. This rising action reaches a peak, and there’s anticipation – upon baited breathe, perhaps even a dash of hope -- about what comes next. And ultimately, with the climax, the hero emerges.
Weak plots tend to follow a “This happens, then this happens, and then this happens” formula. Such a plot is reduced to a series of unrelated scenes. A stronger method for mapping a plot is using the formula, Therefore + But. In this way, the plot unfolds logically, and every scene also becomes relevant. Returning to the domino analogy: while the author may push the first domino over (the inciting incident), the readers cannot help but stay engaged and in awe as several thousand dominoes fall as a consequence.
In other words, the power in any plot beat is not the beat itself. It’s how the character got there.
Everything that happens should be the effect of what precedes it. If readers don’t understand why the car broke down when it did, or why the dragon showed up at that moment, or why the roommate left when she did, even if the event is off stage, then it may be issues with causation. Cause without effect is like a single domino set up alongside, but not within, the domino chain. If the domino can be removed without effecting the chain, then the domino isn’t necessary. Likewise, if you can remove a scene, or a sequence from the manuscript without notable effect on the surrounding action, it reflects a weakened causal chain.
So, what does a strong causal chain do? The very nature of a strong causal chain -- like dominoes-- creates anticipation and builds tension that leads to a dramatic, emotionally satisfying finale.
For a visual, check out this video, in which pro domino artist Lily Hevesh uses 32,000 dominoes to create a massive domino chain, taking 82 days to build.
This is the perfect illustration that demonstrates how a causal chain works in Story. Each subplot must connect to and ultimately affect the broader action.
This video displays the four stages of Story so well:
2. The Context and Complications.
3. The Empowerment of Hope.
4. The Emergence of the Hero.
How to strengthen your causal chain: Using these four stages as a framework, outline your narrative using the causal chain format, depicting the events of your story as a series of cause and effect relationships. This should help strengthen your causal chain.
A Note About the Video: TKSST is a collection of 5,000+ kid-friendly videos, curated for teachers and parents who want to share smarter, more meaningful media in the classroom and at home. And it's free for everyone. Curated by Rion Nakaya, first launched with her teens when they toddled.
-- Bobbi Miller