October 9, 2014

Cause and Effect: Understanding Story Flow

Waterfall with text: Don't Mess with Story Flow

In the real world, the cause of something happens before the effect. A light doesn’t turn on until we flip the switch, a ball doesn’t fall before it’s dropped, and we can’t eat until we’ve gotten our food.

But in writing, we can put words into any order we want. We can write craptastic paragraphs like: Her heart pounded, and she ran to her car. She thought she’d seen her stalker behind her.

Her decision to run to her car and her reaction of a pounding heart are obviously the effect of thinking she sees her stalker (the cause). But when we type those out of order, the reader gets confused. “Why did she suddenly bolt for her car? Oh, that’s why.”

Hiccups like that are sometimes called writing speed bumps. The reader is reading along, enjoying the flow of our story, and then boom!

Our readers are confused, and even after they understand, they have to reverse those events in their mind. That extra step means they’re no longer immersed in our story. Not good.

Yet there are times in our story when we may want to reverse the cause-effect order. Can we? Should we? Let’s take a look.

Why We Usually Want the Cause before the Effect

Some of you might be familiar with Dwight Swain’s concept of the Motivation Reaction Unit (MRU). MRUs are useful for analyzing the sentence level of a story. We can make sure that we’re not skipping a step in the narrative chain and that the stimulus precedes the reaction (not: “She yelped after the dog bit her.”).

MRUs are the smallest scale of actions and reactions, but we see the same importance of keeping our writing in the correct order on the bigger scale of scenes and story beats. We can’t have a character react to a plot event that hasn’t happened yet.

In the big picture, having A lead to B, which then leads to C, etc., creates forward movement in our story. Another word for “forward movement” is momentum. Momentum helps our story’s pace.

If we reverse the cause and effect, readers have to do a mental rewind. That rewind works against the forward movement we want. Again, not good.

In other words, we’d usually want the cause before the effect because reversing them can result in:

  • confused readers,
  • interrupted story flow (reads less smoothly),
  • less immersion for our readers, and
  • a slower story pace.

How to Recognize a Reversed Cause and Effect

Now that we know why we want to avoid accidentally reversing causes and effects in our writing, let’s figure out how we can find them. As with many things, feedback (especially from skilled editors and critique partners) can help us recognize this problem.

However, it’s best to learn how to find these errors on our own. They can be sneaky and hide among normal-looking words, but if we know what to look for, they’re easier to identify.

(Note: Don’t panic if you find any of these clues in your story. These words to look out for are just “suspicious footprints,” not “smoking guns.” *grin* We don’t need to eliminate every instance of these words.)

Clues to look for with a “Find” or macro function:

  • Sentences with “had.”

Not every sentence with “had” will contain a reversed cause and effect, but when we see one, we want to take a closer look. Sometimes “had” indicates events being referred to in the past rather than as they occurred in story time.

Check out the example in the introduction above: “Her heart pounded, and she ran to her car. She thought she’d seen her stalker behind her.” See the “had” (or technically, “she’d” for “she had”) in the second sentence? That’s our clue. In our story, the cause should have been given before the effect.

Tip: Search for “had,” “she’d,” “he’d,” “they’d,” and “hadn’t.” When the word “had” is used to explain something that happened in a previous sentence, we want to make sure that our “had” sentence contains a reaction and not a cause.

  • Sentences with “after.”

“After” is a perfectly fine word to use at the beginning of a sentence. “After she paid for her coffee, the cashier handed her the change.” That follows the order of real-world events. First, she paid, and then she received her change.

The problem comes when the word “after” is used in the middle of a sentence. “The cashier handed her the change after she paid for her coffee.” Here, the events are being referred to in reversed order from how they’d happen.

Tip: Set “Match Case” and search for “after” with a lower-case “a.” When sentences use “after” in the middle, we want to make sure we’re referring to events in the order they occurred.

  • Sentences with “before.”

On the other hand, “before” is sometimes a fine word to use in the middle of a sentence. “She paid for her coffee before the cashier handed her the change.” Those events are referred to in the correct order, so from a cause-and-effect perspective, we’re good.

(Note: “Before” is often a clue for telling instead of showing as well. For the example above, there’s not a good point of view to use that would explain how she would know the cashier was going to hand her the change before it happened. It would usually be better to show the action itself: “She paid for her coffee, and the cashier handed her the change.” We can run into that same “tell vs. show” issue with “after” as well, but “after” clauses at the beginnings of sentences can be a way to summarize unimportant actions.)

The problem comes when the word “before” is used at the beginning of a sentence. “Before the cashier handed her the change, she paid for her coffee.” These events are reversed from how they’d happen.

(Note: “Before” can be used with “could” to indicate interrupted thoughts or actions at the beginnings of sentences. “Before she could ask about her change, the cashier handed her the coins.” This usage doesn’t indicate reversed-order events.)

Tip: Set “Match Case” and search for “Before” with an upper-case “B.” When sentences use “before” in the beginning, we want to check for the presence of “could” or for reversed events.

  • Sentences with “as,” “when,” “because,” “once,” or “until.”

These words (and there are probably other words that can fall into a similar usage) often indicate problems similar to “after” and “before,” in that we get the reason for something after the reaction. “The other car honked at her as/when/because she ran the red light. She gunned the engine once she heard the beep. She didn’t stop until she got her breathing under control.

(Note: These words are also often clues for telling instead of showing. During editing, we can often look for both telling and reversed events at the same time.)

Tip: Search for all the above words. When sentences use “as,” “when,” “because,” “once,” or “until,” we want to check for reversed events (and telling rather than showing).

When Might We Want to Reverse the Order of Events?

Just like how we might want to tell or summarize events occasionally, we sometimes might want to reverse the action and reaction. I can think of two situations off the top of my head.

Using a Reversal to Create a Hook

In journalism, reporters often reverse the cause and effect to create interest at the beginning of an article. They pose a question with the effect and then answer it with the cause.

At the beginning of our story or scenes, we can also use this technique to create a hook. In story openings, readers are already looking for clues to understand where they are, who they’re with, and what’s going on, so they’re in the right frame of mind to ask questions and wait for the answer.

The first example I gave in the introduction could be reworked (removing the cheesy, craptastic aspects) to create a story opening:

Sally crept alongside the cars parked on the curb. Her key shook in her fist, the point extended from between her thumb and curled fingers, ready to stab. Just a few more feet to her car. Maybe that hadn’t been her stalker across the street, but she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The very first sentence creates a question: Why is she creeping along the curb? Questions like that at the beginning of stories are a good thing. They pull the reader to the next sentence and the next.

But that technique won’t work for the whole book. *smile* We’d usually switch to the normal cause-and-effect order within a paragraph or so to start our forward momentum.

Using a Reversal to Improve Story Flow

(I feel like I’m telling you a shameful secret with this one. Warning: This breaks “the rules.”)

Another time I purposely reverse the order of sentences is for dialogue cues. I make the conscious choice to break this rule for dialogue cues because I think it helps the flow. But follow my example at your own risk. *grin*

For dialogue cues in non-omniscient point of view (POV) stories, the cause-and-effect rule would have us indicate how a character says a line of dialogue after they say it. Our POV character couldn’t know another character was going to whisper until after they started whispering. So technically, the sentences should be in the order of dialogue and then cue:

“I don’t want to go with you.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

However, to my thinking, this order creates another story flow issue. The reader finishes the dialogue, “hearing” a normal voice in their head, and then they get to the dialogue cue telling them that they should have been hearing a whisper.

That cue creates a completely different tone to the dialogue sentence too. In this example, readers might assume the line was spoken forcefully, only to discover in the next sentence that it was actually tentative.

In other words, that correction to how they heard the dialogue in their head forces a speed bump, and readers need to rewind the line of dialogue to fix their assumption. As discussed above, rewinding is bad for story flow.

So I’ve made the conscious choice to ignore the POV and cause-and-effect rules for these types of dialogue cues. I would instead write:

Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t want to go with you.”

Obviously, there’s no way the POV character or the reader could know that she was going to be whispering before she even opened her mouth, but to my mind, the flow is better.

The reader now knows how to read that dialogue, and they don’t have to do the mental rewind. No mental rewind equals better flow. Better flow equals better forward momentum. This is one time where I know I’m wrong (according to the rule), but I don’t want to be right. *smile*

As with all things writing, there’s no rule that’s always going to be right or always going to be wrong. Sentence fragments are against “the rules” too, but many fiction writers consciously choose to ignore that one. Ditto for starting sentences with a conjunction.

The best way to muddle through confusing advice is to learn the rule and the reason for the rule. Once we know why the rule exists, we’ll better know when it’s okay to break it. In writing, we can break rules if we have a reason that outweighs their purpose. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. *smile*

Have you noticed reversed causes and effects when reading? Have you ever accidentally reversed causes and effects in your writing? Do you have any other tips for how to find those errors? Have you ever purposely put causes and effects in the wrong order, and if so, why? Do you agree or disagree with my decision to break the rule for dialogue cues?

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Thank you for the thorough post! I’m adding this post to my explanation of the topic for clients. 😀

Personally, I tend to write linearly…more or less. Even if I have flashback scenes, the flashbacks generally have a pattern and show up linearly in relation to each other. That helps these kinds of logical twists stand out.

…Aaand of course I’ve ended up developing a story universe where some of the characters can essentially go jumping through time at will. >_>

If you want to appreciate how easy timing is to screw up, try writing something like that. This story has dual narrators. One of them jumped back in time into a scene from the other character’s perspective, which appeared pretty early in the story (and actually gave that narrator the weapon she used in the climax). It looks like the relevant scene from the PoV the one who does the time jumping is going to be the last scene in the story…who does it because she’s crushing on the fiancé of an alternate-universe version of herself, and neither of them is actually from the universe they’re living in. (They’re also roommates.)

I should probably also mention that the aforementioned situation is what my brain came up with when I told it I wanted a less convoluted story idea than usual.

Ping Wan
Ping Wan

Dear Jami,
Thank you so much for another piece of Gold for me. I’m studying MRUs from Swain and your posts help lot for me to understand the concepts. I save most of you posts and print some of them to read on paper (to make sure the idea sink to my brain).

Thank you very much and keep up the good work!
Ping Wan

Ava Louise

Thanks for another timely article. Just in time for my self-editing before sending the book to my editor. Your advice is always spot-on. I also like that you “give permission” for each author to decide for themselves is they want to “break” a rule. 🙂


Thanks for this!! I’m printing it out for when I get to sentence level edits. 🙂 I know I have way too many speed bumps in my MS at present. The search tips will be super helpful in tracking down out a lot of them efficiently.

Jennifer Barricklow

This is wonderfully timely and helpful, as usual. I see a lot of this kind of flow issue (at the sentence or paragraph level) in the work that I edit. An author’s knowledge of the whole picture tends to neutralize these speed bumps before they even register. Thank you for the keyword tips — I can’t wait to share them with my clients!


[…] post (Cause and Effect: Understanding Story Flow) does a nice job of explaining how and why small speed bumps in our writing can have an undesired […]

Craig Skiera
Craig Skiera

This is great stuff, Jami! Your posts are always excellent, but this particular issue is one of many I need to work on, and I’m going to put your tips to good use. Thanks again!


Thanks a bunch for this great post! Since I just started writing again, it helps me more than you know!

Glynis Jolly

These tips are going to help tremendously with my writing. I still on my 1st draft but I see places in the story where the flow is jerky. These tips are going to make the difference. Thank you.

Sonia G Medeiros

Interesting bit about dialogue. I love tucking action into my dialogue and sometimes break up the dialogue to fit more than one bit of action. I usually try to run the dialogue through in a complete scene in my head and capture the feeling of watching it in a movie. Of course, where you can have characters talking and showing action at the same time on film, you have to separate those out in writing. Still, playing around with action and dialogue order helps.

Sherry Gloag
Sherry Gloag

Thanks for this very interesting and timely article. It’s very helpful.


[…] the underlying chemistry of the story, along with the two pages of questions to maintain story flow, helped me see how the pieces and parts fit together. In other words, the thinking about how to fix […]


[…] action-reaction chains are a new concept to you, Jami has written about actions and reactions and cause and effect before. These posts are a great place to […]


[…] Does it flow with a cause-and-effect chain of events? […]


[…] words (knew, thought, felt, etc.), weasel words (seemed, appeared, etc.), point of view errors, flipped cause and effect, or other common issues that weaken our […]


[…] create a story flow that carries readers along […]


[…] create a scene flow that carries readers along […]


[…] how to use Motivation-Reaction Units to check cause-and-effect sentence flow […]


[…] As a bonus, a fourth issue I frequently see—and have already written about—is mixing up cause and effect in our sentences. […]

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!