Incidental vs. Cause-and-Effect Action: Do You Know the Difference?

Ann Whitford Paul Writing Picture Books

This is Part 2 of my look at Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication (Writers Digest Books, 2009). You can read Part 1, which is about the one thing every picture book writer must do, here.

Structurally, Paul’s book is divided into these sections: Before You Writer Your Story; Early Story Decisions;  Structure of Your Story; Language of Your Story; Tying Together Loose Story Ends; After Your Story is Done. Each of these sections is divided into shorter chapters that deal more specifically with various component ideas.

As I mentioned in Part 1, “The One Thing Every Picture Book Writer Must Do,” Paul’s Writing Picture Books is one of the standard books on the craft of writing picture books. The Amazon carousel below will show you some of the others. In Part 1, we talked about Paul’s directive to “Become a picture book scholar” and some ways to do that. To see what Paul suggests, click here.

This week we’re going to talk about action. Specifically, the difference between Incidental vs. Cause-and-Effect action. Good writers know the difference. Do you?

Paul’s discussion of action comes in her section on structure, and specifically in her discussion of “the second act,” also known as the middle, also known as the muddle. Paul’s discussion of structure is a great introduction to how story structure operates not only in relation to picture books, but in relation to storytelling in general.

About my “Writing Tips: The Best Lessons from the Best Books on Writing” Series

The goal of this series is pretty simple. I’m a lover of craft books. They fill my shelves. They cover my desk. They sit behind my toilet. They’re an obsession. They’re also the most awesomest procrastination tool ever. Which is good for you, and bad for me. I’m a recovering craft-book junky and this series is my therapy. I’m going to pass along the best pieces of advice from some the best books on writing that I’ve read. These blog posts are based on my own interpretation of the best writing ideas/ advice/ lessons from the best books on the craft of writing.

In her section on structure, Paul includes a nice quote from novelist John Gardner, whose own works on writing fiction, including The Art of Fiction:Notes on Craft for Young Writers and On Becoming a Novelist, are considered classics. (I’ll be discussing them in a later post, so stick around.) Gardner writes, “In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”

Gardner’s quote helps us see how the three-act structure, which can feel a bit academic and uninspired, is actually a pretty common-sensical way of organizing a story. In the first act, we learn who the character is and what he or she desires. In the second act, the character takes action towards fulfilling that desire. And in the third act, the character succeeds or fails.

There will be lots of opportunity to talk more about structure later on, and the truth is, Paul isn’t really digging very deep. Structure is almost its own sub-genre within books on the writing craft and I’ll be covering a lot of them in separate posts. I will say that for the beginning writer, Paul gives you all you need to get started. What I am going to focus on here is the excellent distinction Paul makes between incidental and cause-and-effect action.

Action, or the action your character takes to achieve his or her goal, is what dominates the second act of your story. The second act is, incidentally, where most stories (and writers) fall apart. One of the reasons for this is that the obstacles we have our characters encounter are often incidental. That is, they aren’t related to one another. The story example Paul uses is of a boy named Steve who wants to buy his mother a present for her birthday. After collecting the money he has saved, he starts off to the store. Along the way he stops to play baseball; stops to help a neighbor weed her garden; chats with a police officer; and then finally gets to the store.

In addition to the lack of conflict, these actions could have happened in any order. This is what Paul means by incidental. They are separate incidents. Another way to say this would be to say that incidental action feels episodic. It doesn’t feel connected. And the reason it doesn’t feel connected is because there is no sense of cause-and-effect.

According to Paul (and every other writing teacher ever!), “The action we want in our stories is action that leads directly to a reaction, that leads to another action.” Stories are about things going wrong. But they are also about organizing our reality into a meaningful and understandable whole. The logic of cause-and-effect makes sense to us. It is how we want to see the world. And it is how we want to see our stories and the characters in them. This is the logic behind the cultural idiom that “Everything happens for a reason.” While it is beyond the scope of this blog to establish whether this is true in life, cause-and-effect logic should, in general, be the basis of action in your story (to a greater or lesser degree depending on your genre).

That is to say that your character should take an action and that action should cause a reaction and that reaction should cause your character to take another action, etc. In this way, everything relates back to your character’s first action. In how to books on writing structure, the “first” decisive action your protagonist takes is variably called Turning Point 1, The Act 1 Break, Crossing the First Threshold, etc. And it marks your characters decision to take action in pursuit of his or her goal. Ideally, each reaction should raise the stakes so that the action rises and the tension escalates as the story moves on.

To illustrate this, Paul presents this example: Her character Steve, who is on his way to buy a present for his mother, stops to play softball with some friends. He hits a home run which breaks a car window. He thinks about running, but decides to take responsibility and pay for the broken window with the money he was going to use for his mom’s present. But the money isn’t enough. So he offers to work for the lady who owns the car. When he is done, he walks home and starts to cry because not only won’t he be able to buy his mom a present, but now he’s late getting home. With tears in his eyes, he steps into the street without looking and causes an accident. The police arrive and…that’s where I’m going to leave you.

Agreed, it’s not a great story, but you get the idea. Notice how everything goes back to Steve’s initial action and how the situation gets worse and worse. (Also notice that a small part of you already wants to know what happened!) In the language of structure, this is the essence of your second act. Your protagonist tries to solve his or her problem but manages to make things worse. This is good advice for writers of any genre.

Writing a Picture Book? I recommend...

In conclusion, many people think plot and character are different things. But they’re not. After all, “You are what you do, not what you say,” as the saying goes. Well, same goes for your characters. Characters are defined by their actions. And what is a plot but a record of a characters’ actions in pursuit of a desire or goal. In the best narratives, those actions follow a certain kind of cause-and-effect logic as each action and reaction slowly escalates the stakes as the story nears its climax.

Paul’s book is full of smart observations like this, and an educational read for new and seasoned writers alike.

What do you think? Did you know the difference between incidental and cause-and-effect action before? Do you care?

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