Cause and Effect ties the events of your story together. If our protagonist Jane tries one thing and it doesn’t work, so she tries a different thing, and that doesn’t work, she’s returning to the same place she was in the beginning. But if she tries something, and the impact of her success or failure changes her, teaches her something, then that event will lead to her next decision and her next move.
Jane wants to be Queen of the High Wire, even though she’s terrified of falling. Her rival, Violet, sends bats to knock Jane off her high wire.
Jane captures the bats and uses them in her act.
Violet sends a flying Nopefish to knock Jane off her high wire.
Jane captures and tames the Nopefish.
Violet sets a bomb to knock Jane off her high wire . . .
You can see the problem: Jane never gets away from her beginning because the events don’t change her or the plot. Cause-and-effect demands that each event affects the character and the plot in such a way that it causes the next scene. Something like this:
Violet sends the bats, but Jane tames the bats and uses them in her act. This CAUSES her to gain more confidence, become a better tightrope walker, and earn more fame. Her stardom grows.
That CAUSES Violet to grow more desperate. Now she has to get rid of the Jane AND the bats. She sends the Nopefish to take back the bats and knock Jane off her rope.
That CAUSES Jane to think on her feet, capture the Nopefish, become a more confident tightrope walker . . .
Which CAUSES Violet to give up on subtlety and just plant a big bomb . . .
Don’t worry, Jane handles that, too. The point is that Jane’s a long way from her fearful beginning now because the events of the plot have changed her and because of that her story has moved away from the beginning when she was just your average every-day tightrope walker.
Cause and Effect holds your linear plot together in one connected thread; that’s good for your reader because it makes it easy to follow and fun (because things change and move).
If your readers can’t figure out why your character is doing something, the motivation for that act hasn’t been established, and chances are that’s because you’ve lost the chain of cause and effect.
For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents