“Life is a perpetual instruction in cause and effect.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
“You see, too often as writers, we think in sequential events, not consequential effects.”—September C. Fawkes
Over the past few months I’ve spent a few hours each night watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, the popular, long-running TV medical drama (with past seasons available on Netflix) about a group of young doctors in a Seattle hospital learning how to become surgeons.
There are a lot of reasons why I’m watching the show, not the least of which is because it’s a terrific story (thanks to its creator, Shonda Rhimes), with multiple plot-lines and characters who make mistakes and learn about each other and fall in and out of love as they try to master the challenging art of medicine (and life). But the main reason I’m watching is because, from a writer’s perspective, each episode offers a chance to study the principle of cause and effect.
Cause and effect is what drives a story forward. It’s the engine of plot. And watching Grey’s Anatomy helps me better understand the way cause and effect works as the scaffolding of a story. Once you understand how cause and effect works, you can begin to see how a plot emerges out of the choices that each character makes. Each choice means a character must act in a certain way. And each action leads to a certain consequence. And each consequence leads to another choice… and so on. Cause and effect, or choice and consequence. It’s how a story unfolds, one choice at a time.
So I’m thinking how this idea of choice and consequence might help us craft plots for our stories. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask each of our characters what he/she/they might want. But watching Grey’s Anatomy, I’m learning that the principle of choice and consequence means asking the question slightly differently as what does our character want to do? Go right or left? Straight or backward? Climb up or down? Go in the water or stay on land? Each choice has a consequence—sometimes an intentional result, sometimes unintentional.
Here’s how cause and effect (or choice and consequence) worked in an episode that I just finished watching in season 9. One of the characters, Arizona Robbins, a pediatrics surgeon, is married to another surgeon, Callie Torres, and makes a choice to sleep with another woman, a visiting facial reconstruction surgeon. Her choice to cheat on Callie leads to a series of consequences. There’s her own remorse, of course. But there’s the waterfall of events that changes their relationship going forward. There’s Callie’s anger toward Arizona, which leads to her decision to leave the marriage and move out. For a while she stays with Derek and Meredith, and ultimately she decides to kick Arizona out of the condo they’ve shared so she can have her life back.
What’s clear in this flow of events is how much Callie wants to be happy. What does she have to do to be happy? Once she makes the decision to be happy again, she figures out it’s time to leave her marriage, and to stop helping other people and to help herself instead. These are all decisions that she acts on. Will she make another decision that will bring her back to Arizona in the end? Will Arizona decide to do something to win Callie back and atone for her mistake? I don’t know. But it’s possible. The story depends on their choices, and on the consequences that result from their choices.
Of course, I could offer other examples of cause and effect. But you get the idea. Stories are based on cause and effect, choice and consequence. Whether you’re reading a novel or watching a show, you can study each character and note the different actions that he or she makes and then follow the consequences of those decisions. There will be actions and re-actions. And you’ll see, I suspect, how each character‘s decisions impacts their lives as well as the lives of whoever they come into contact with.
Choices and decisions. Cause and effect. These are the essential ingredients for a story to capture a reader’s attention (and heart).
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