Cause And Effect

So, where are we? What have I given you so far? I've given you an understanding of what stories do. But have I given you anything you can actually use to put together a story? I have not. I've given you theory, and I've talked about the effect of the story, but I haven't given you one thing that you can actually use to put together a story—haven't given you the first step to actually make it happen. Identification is what the story does—the effect, what it makes happen, but not how it makes it happen. How—that's the cause. And that's what writers work with—causes. It's important to understand the difference and to keep the two separate.

How do we put together a story that creates identification? Well, that's what this craft is all about, and that's the subject of the next chapter. There will be exercises within and at the end of that chapter and each chapter that follows. It's a good idea to be ready with what you need to write (notebook, laptop, tape recorder, etc.) so you can get right into it without hunting around for tools.


How do we do it—put together a story that gets to the reader, one that causes him or her to live and feel the experiences of the characters, to identify? Well, it can be done in a couple of ways. I can give you a definition, a concept, or a model. But stories aren't ideas. They're not concepts or definitions. They're experience. So, rather than tell you how a story works, I'm going to show you—show you by giving you a little story to see how much of an experience I can cause you to have, how much I can get you to identify, to live through the characters. Here's the story:

My wife and I have a friend named Larry who is going through a nasty divorce. His wife wants it. He doesn't. My wife ran into him at the mall. He looked terrible—sad and despondent. He sounded worse than he looked, so she invited him over for dinner to try to cheer him up.

Larry's an old friend, so we know what he likes. I bought a bottle of his favorite Scotch and some fancy cigars he likes after dinner. We had a few drinks and were feeling pretty good. We let Larry know we would be there for him whenever he needed us. He could call anytime night or day. We renewed our friendship. Larry felt better. We felt better. He went home happy. We went to bed happy. It was a great night, all around, for everybody.

That's the end. How was it? Moving? Compelling? Dramatic? Did you identify? Were you gripped? Did you have the kind of experience you want from a story?

The answer, of course, is NO. You did not have an experience. You did not connect. You did not identify. You could not. The reason you could not was: I purposely beat the life out of it.

So, the effect was boredom and maybe irritation. The cause was a dead story. I presented you with an experience that left you cold, with a mistake. Why? Because mistakes are what we start with. We make mistakes constantly. First drafts are loaded with them. Remember Hemingway: "The first draft is shit." Expecting too much is the surest way to become blocked. The other reason I started with a mistake is: We learn more from our mistakes than from our successes—not from the mistakes themselves, but from correcting them.

So, if I'm right, if I know what I'm doing, I should be able to show you how to turn this mistake into an involving story. But before I do, consider what's needed to make it happen.

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