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The click of billiard balls

I mentioned last week that I was reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book about reading and writing. It’s a very good book and I recommend it.

At one point, Saunders writes:

I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.

First, a willingness to revise.

Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.

I’ve probably worked with as many writers as Saunders has. (Though, young? Tush! The oldest client of ours to become a top 10 bestseller was the 84-year-old Barbara Tate. You don’t need to be young to have something to say.) And on that willingness-to-revise issue: well, he’s right.

The most frustrating writers I’ve ever dealt with are ones who come to us with a really strong manuscript, which they then don’t revise. I remember one writer in particular who had a genuinely interesting and well-written manuscript. It needed a brisk haircut, three or four weeks in the workshop, and it would have been ready to meet some agents. And – it never did. It never got there. I’d look at version N+1 of the manuscript and be genuinely perplexed. Had I in fact received version N by mistake? And then I’d look and I’d find that, no, sure enough, a few specific paragraphs had changed in response to very specific comments by me.

But those comments had always been simply illustrative of more general points: “Your characterisation is sometimes sloppily general, for example on page 243, where you say …” The issue on page 243 might have been fixed, but the manuscript just didn’t reflect the broader comment I’d been struggling to get across.

I think it’s probably true to say that not one of those authors has ever been published. And honestly? They didn’t deserve it either.

Really, though, I want to focus on Saunders’s other issue: causality.

He writes:

Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B … But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality …

This is important, because causation is what create the appearance of meaning.

“The queen died, and then the king died” (E.M. Forster’s famous formulation) describes two unrelated events happening in sequence. It doesn’t mean anything. “The queen died, and the king died of grief” puts those events into relation; we understand that one caused the other. The sequence, now infused with causality, means: “That king really loved his queen.”

And yes: just yes.

Causality gives stories meaning, which gives them purpose. You can’t have a memorable or interesting story that doesn’t have layers of meaning – and rich causal relationships.

But I want to pick at this a bit more, not least because Saunders addresses himself, in large part, to literary writers. But we genre authors are in the same old boat, with the same sails, ropes and steering tackle.

We have the same aim: write an engaging story! And the same means of propulsion: characters at move in the world, events connecting up via chains of causality.

Yet things only start to get interesting when the causality gets complicated and (preferably) a little but murky too.

An example:

Let’s say you want your detective novel to end with the baddie taking your protagonist, an unarmed female detective, hostage down at the now-deserted docks. OK, good. That sounds like a perfectly good strategy to me.

But why would your unarmed female detective go and explore those dark and deserted docks by herself? Those of us who write police stories have an eternal battle: we want drama, but police forces really don’t. The author solution to any plot-climax is: get the protagonist one-to-one and face to-face with the baddie. The police solution is: deploy overwhelming force so the baddie has absolutely no chance to get one-to-one and face to-face with anyone.

The classic authorial response involves some kind of side-shuffle. Damn! The detective’s phone is out of signal. Damn! She’d call for help, but she’s in trouble with her boss, so ... Damn! She would call for help, but she has a stone in her shoe and …

And, OK, you do probably need a thing-in-the-world type solution like these. Such things help.

But they can’t be all. That can’t be your everything.

Saunders, remember, links causality with meaning – and a lost phone signal doesn’t deliver any kind of interesting meaning at all. So you need to pair up your thing-in-the-world solution with something fuzzier, darker and more capable of complex interpretation. So:

  • Your protagonist is half in love with the dark marauder at the docks.
  • She feels that dark marauder is her – that he embodies a part of what she is.
  • She thinks the dark marauder may be her father; she doesn’t know if she wants to capture him or free him.
  • Or something else

In one of my novels, The Dead House, my character investigates a number of disappearances. It turns out that the victims have been forced into a life of religious service, that they did not invite and cannot escape. At the crucial point in the book, my character, Fiona, has pieced together about 80% of the mystery. She knows enough that she could escape it – but doesn’t. Her investigation leads her – alone – down a dark country path. There she finds the clue that completes her understanding of the case, but also leads to her capture. She too is about to be forced into a life of painfully narrow religious service.

So why? Why does she go alone?

Well, yes: I provided the reader with enough thing-in-the-world type explanations to satisfy the most basic objections. But that wouldn’t have been enough. That would have delivered an excuse, yes, but no meaning. 

So I tried to write the relevant scenes with a sense of longing as well as one of horror. After the book’s denouement, one of the rescued prisoners (a Russian woman) sits and talks with Fiona. Here’s a (very trimmed down) version of what happens:

We sit.

Opposite each other at a short refectory table. Like staring into a mirror, except that she is taller than me, and very pale. The skin and eyes of a land close to the High Arctic.

Her kirtle is beaded around the neckline, where mine is plain, but the bootstring lacing at the front is the same. The grey cloth is the same. The weight of scratchy wool. The thin, almost sheer, undershirt.

I say, ‘Last night. You saw me through the glass? I thought I felt it.’

‘Yes. You are a police?’

‘A police officer. Yes.’

‘Last night, when I see you, I—’


I think this is what I wanted to know. The reason I asked to see this woman. I want to understand what she felt. What she saw.

She says, ‘I don’t know. I have two thought. One is, you are real one. You are really here to do this thing [life as a religious anchorite].’ She sweeps her hand from wimple down towards the hem of her skirt. ‘You have this in your face which say, “Yes, I am come to really do this.” But also, I think, this woman make us free. How, I don’t know, but . . . this woman make us free.’

And that’s causality operating the way Saunders means. It’s not really the click of billiard balls he’s after – a pattern that could be fully described in mathematics alone – it’s the murk of human-to-human causation.

Was Fiona there to rescue prisoners? Or submit to a life of religious service? In the end, she chooses the rescue option. (Of course. Duh! I have a series to write.) But we feel the temptation of the other course too. The terrible beauty. The way it could attract a character like mine.

So why did she let herself be caught? Because she wanted to be caught. Even phrasing it like that is too crass, too simple – but that basic pull of attraction was an essential ingredient in the cassoulet.

So, folks. Revise lots. Work with causality yes, but make it complicated. Dodgy phone signals are fine, up to a point, but your deeper meanings – your story purpose – those will always lie buried in a complex human heart.

And how about you? Are you struggling with a problem of causation where your thing-in-the-world solution just feels insufficient. Or have you read something which inspired you to dig out deeper, more ambiguous connections in your own work? Let me know below, and we'll all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (33)
  • Hi Harry,

    That wicker fire could be another way of saying, “Revise lots”, don’t get stuck in a lovely image. Or it could be a devilish delight in pyromania. Or both. Or something else.

    Till Monday with Orna…

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    • Yeah. It's pyromania, pure & simple.

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    • Hi Harry, 

      I often find meaningful causality the make or break in a novel and I'm super hot on it in my own -- at least I try to be.

      But I'm reading a newly published novel at the moment. I think it has a fair bit of marketing behind it, it will be a BBC Between the Covers read and I believe it is the author's third book, the first two being reasonably successful. But, oh, hell, the causality is so terribly bad. It's actually a lovely story in many ways -- and it is such a terrible story in many ways. And perhaps many readers won't notice the causality issues (although I'm sure they will subconsciously) but I'm struggling to get past the inconsistencies, the deus ex machina, the stretch of my suspension of disbelief so far that it snapped after about two chapters. It is so terribly written.

      I guess my question is, how did this get published? How? How? How?

      Why didn't the editor pick up on the issues??????? (small homage to Terry Pratchett there)

      (I'm not going to name and shame, I don't think that is a nice thing to do)

      Just wondering how such a book got published.

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      • Only a few?

        I've got to the point where it seems like 75% or more of the books I pick up don't deserve to have been published.

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        • Fascinating. I'll read that. Thanks.

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          • Glad I'm not the only one thinking this.

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          • There's a special matter of causality in science fiction which drives me crazy when it's left in the McGuffin stage of development (i.e. taken for granted). The science, however futuristic and fantastic, has to make sense. This is one of the core features of strong science fiction, that the technology, or biology, or whatever is carefully thought out. You don't have to actually do the experiments in your cellar to make sure it works, but there needs to be a plausible logic to it all. If you're going to do light speed travel, make up something that explains why Einstein got it wrong, or why he got it right, but there's this newly discovered workaround. If you're going to have biological beasties or human super powers, explain why the normal rules of cellular function or genetics have been superseded or don't apply. Maybe you'll find some readers that don't care and you can get away with it, but there are others (like me) who will have a hard time engaging with your story when your run roughshod over the science. Science isn't just a context in SF, it's one of the main characters.

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            • This was my biggest problem with The Flash. The science changed from one episode to the next, and the only thing driving the story was character, and even that got annoying and disappointing by season 3. But yes, I agree. Good science and even magic explanations are so crucial. I.e. what the heck is the deal with the eagles, Gandalf?

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              • Agreed!! And you can have a bit of stuff unexplained, so long as the elements that lead in your story have some kind of basic rationale

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              • I recently got a comment about a causation issue in my manuscript. In my story an older brother (a prince) convinces his younger sister who is gifted with magic to leave the kingdom with some strangers who also have magic because magic is outlawed. Someone pointed out that if he really loved his sister, which he does, there's no way he'd let her leave with two random strangers with who knows what intentions. I agree, but this happens at the very beginning of the book. The rest of the plot can only happen because of this instance. I guess I need some ideas on motivation for the princess to leave with these people she doesn't know.

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                • To me the story is not so implausible. Consider the Joseph story in Genesis. Joseph's brothers had conspired to kill him, but Reuben prevented them from doing so. While Joseph is sitting in a pit (and apparently Reuben is not with them while the rest ate lunch), the remaining brothers decide to sell him to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. Reuben returns to find Joseph missing and is distraught. They all conspire to cover it up by faking Joseph's death by savage beasts. (Gen 37:18-36)

                  Joseph's story is one of the greatest plots of all time. It is this scene which sets off a cascade of events that comes together beautifully at the end of Genesis. Now, to your prince and his sister. If the prince is Reuben here and Joseph the sister, perhaps the prince has one plan, based on his love for her, but it gets confused or disrupted in some way beyond his control.

                  But I'm not convinced there is a causal problem in your story (not having read it). What exactly is the political situation for the prince? Are magi to be put to death? Are those who harbor magi executed too? What kind of political pressure is he facing? I can see his sending her off in secret as the kind of hard moral problem we face in life. Perhaps if his anguish over this decision is sufficiently developed, we can believe he's making the best of a bad situation.

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                  • The king, their father, has always distrusted magic, and so the princess has only confided in her protective older brother. When a law is officially made by the king that all those found guilty of practicing magic are to be taken to a high security and dreaded prison out of the country, the prince decides it's too dangerous for his sister to stay. I guess the question is, would he really think it's safer for her to travel with total strangers who have questionable intentions than it would be to just try and hide her magic like she's done for years?

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                    • Well, if in the moral calculus it's a choice between certain suffering in a dungeon and the uncertain outcome with a sketchy band of strangers, one can accept his choice of going with the possibility that it might be better, however uncertain. Maybe the reader might not agree, but it's at least not an issue of causality.

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                    • Thinking about it, causation works on the microlevel in a sentence as well I suppose.  In that, I suggest, a good sentence should have a degree of continuity in which one part logically follows another, in showing or telling - so that even then there is causality.  John Gardner says so anyway.  Harry Bingham recommended his Art of Fiction I believe but the man is tough.  No, not tough, a torturer. At one point he suggests a poor sentence is an indicator of poor character in the author.

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