The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
This section runs a page and a half at most, and on first reading the content seems obvious. On closer reading, however, I think some of the terminology Hills uses gets in the way. There’s a lot here, particularly for storytellers just starting out, so let’s do a little unpacking.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
Sequential causality is generally considered to be very important in plotting. It is often thought to be the difference between a simple story, which just presents events as arranged in their time sequence, and a true plot, in which one scene prepares for and leads into and causes the scene that comes after it.
The section is titled Sequence and Causality, suggesting two distinct aspects, yet the first two words in the section are sequential causality, implying some sort of combined effect. On the face of it the first sentence in the quote seems undeniably true, and I don’t know any writers who would bother to contest the point. But agreeing with the premise doesn’t make clear what Hills means by sequence, causality, and sequential causality.
In the second sentence I think Hills muddies the waters a bit more when he uses phrases like “in their time sequence” and “a true plot”. The problem is that any scene which “prepares for and leads into” another scene will also necessarily be “in sequence” in some sense. (I can’t imagine a scene that “leads into” another scene in a non-sequential way.)
Sequence and Causality
Causal events are directly connected through action and effect. Something happens, that ‘something’ has an effect, and that effect may in turn cause something else to happen. Sequential events are not causally related, but relate to each other chronologically — which Hills makes explicit with the phrase “in their time sequence”. For example, something happens to you on the way to work, something unrelated happens to you at work, something else happens on the way home, and voila — those sequential, non-causal events become the ‘story’ of your day.
In real life we don’t expect our days to be fully or even substantially plotted. In fact, if we thought everything that happened to us was causally connected we would probably be more than a little unsettled, if not also wonder who was behind such machinations. Personally, I expect to experience many sequential events and relatively few causal events in my day.
When confronting fiction, however, expectations change. There is an assumption on the part of the reader that everything included in a work of fiction furthers the aims of the story in some manner. Even if there are no causally connected events in a short story at the plot level the reader assumes that everything will relate at the authorial level. (A story containing content that does not relate in any way is a story that needs more editing.)
When Hills says a “simple story” relates events in a “time sequence” what he means is that causal plotting is often omitted from such stories, eliminating the “back-and-forth” action of cause and effect. (For a refresher on why plot is not equal to story, see here.) Yet somehow this deprivation also allows such works to aspire to greater integration. Hills makes this explicit a bit later when he says:
Many short stories have only a single scene, and even when there are more, one doesn’t seem to get the one-thing-leads-to-another, back-and-forth forever pattern of narrative of a novel. In a short story, a scene somehow relates more to the rest of a story than it does to just the scene adjacent to it.
In a short story there may not be enough time to finesse a developed plot, but at the character level it’s always possible to mingle causality and sequence. By virtue of its constrained focus, the short story profits because its length encourages more fully integrated “episodes and incidents” when compared with longer works.
If it’s possible for us to accept both causality and sequentiality in our daily lives, it stands to reason that both methods of interpreting meaning might coexist in fiction as well. As regular readers know, one of my main goals in writing this series is to mine techniques that can be ported from short fiction to other narrative forms. Sequence and causality meet the test individually, but they also profit authors in combination. Not only is it unnecessary for everything in your story be causally connected, it’s preferable that it not be. (In writing fiction of any length, omitting a significant amount of sequential, non-causal events might actually cripple suspension of disbelief.)
Non-causal events in a story can be deep triggers for everything from theme to irony, while causal events will almost always be felt first as plot structure. (If you come from a drawing background, think of the difference between an object and its negative space.) Presenting the two in parallel — using causal events for connective tissue, say, and sequential events for overarching context — increase the depth and dimension of both.
Sequential causality, however, is more than simply alternating the two techniques. Is is, as Hills notes in reference to Heart of Darkness, the complete integration of the two:
…yet no episode or scene is in there for it’s own sake — neither just for its own dramatic value, nor to serve as the “cause” of the next sequence.
I think it stands to reason that such integration is always easier in a shorter work. Shrink the writing scale to flash fiction or even poetry and the process of infusing theme and action and character into every aspect of a story becomes easier because of the relative simplicity. Trying to do something similar over four hundred pages would not only prove difficult craft-wise, it would probably seem unwieldy if not impenetrable to the reader.
Manipulating Sequence and Causality
If you put your mind to it you can extract even more emotional power and reader interest from sequence and causality by manipulating each (and both together) at the authorial level. As already discussed, events can be sequential (chronological) without being causal. But what about non-sequential causality? What would that be like?
In the telling of a story, authors always have the choice of relating sequential or causal events in a non-chronological manner (think Catch-22), and the advantages in doing so can be considerable. Beyond engineering cheap-but-effective ploys that generate curiosity and suspense, rearranging sequential and causal events out of chronological order can greatly enhance the power of a work. (Quentin Tarantino exploits all of these tricks in his movies, which is why he’s known as both an artist and a hack.)
Flashbacks, flashforwards, or any out-of-time juxtaposition of two related scenes can be compelling because of the adjacency that Hills references in the second quote above. And that’s true for both sequential and causal events as well.
There are a lot of options available to you as a storyteller when working with sequence and causality. If you aspire to storytelling mastery, understanding how to use them separately and together in works of any length is a must. The good news is that you can always rely on the reader to assume that what you’ve included has meaning. That’s the default, and from time to time that assumption will help you when you fall down.
Even better, however, is the fact that you can engineer full-blown sequential causality in specific scenes or at critical points in your stories to help heighten reader interest and emotional power. Again, learning how to write short stories profits storytelling in all mediums because it emphasizes the ability to focus and unify effects.
Next up: The Frame, as against the Flashback.
— Mark Barrett
I like the way you compare casual and non-casual events to the white space in a drawing. It’s a good analogy and makes perfect sense.
Amidst all the admittedly nebulous aspects of storytelling, the logic of plot is something any author can hang onto. It’s reassuring to know that A causes B causes C.
But there is, I think, too much emphasis on plot. As Hills notes, plot is not equivalent to story. It is a component, and the other components are not mere window dressing. Even if what you love is intricacy and cleverness in plotting, to fail to simultaneously deliver believable characters and a convincing sense of place is to fail as a storyteller. (I’m not saying all readers will notice. I am saying it’s a bar all authors should aspire to.)
Anything that can be done to increase awareness about other aspects of story is a good thing. And that’s another reason to advocate for developing short story skills. The short story places a premium on everything else, and diminishes the importance of plot. (Which is, in turn, the reason many writers struggle to write good short stories. They are plot dependent.)
very true. Although I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to separate people from huge, sprawling plots in a short. Like they can’t scale down. 🙁 I wish there was some way to get the blinkers off so they could “see” other possibilities, including “less” plot.
I think the best way to get most people to see possibilities is to show them examples. It’s the benefit of either a good English Lit education or of having a writing teacher who can point to relevant works by other authors — as Hills often does.
Plot will always be the darling of storytelling. But it’s also a vanity. People who are known for great or intricate or clever plotting stand over their work like a magician over an illusion. And there will never be any shortage of people who want that limelight.