Saturday, October 30, 2010

Contingent Causation or the "weight" of events

Yeah--academics R me. It's another one of those dry titles. It'll probably always be a problem. I've been doing that workshop on Taken, and it's been fascinating. Love workshops. I have the feeling I'm close to reaching integration, where the inside me and outside me match up like dots on a pattern.

Someone asked if every scene had to have conflict, and I know I'm out there--but I'm a firm believer in contingent causation.

Contingent causation is the effect a lot of little things have on a story event. A good example would your hero quitting his job right out of the blue.

In a plot driven story with direct cause and effect, maybe every day is a fight. He argues with a co-worker. They both want the same promotion. It’s more money, better hours and the hero is clearly the right person. No one can doubt it because it’s blatantly obvious. The only trouble is that the other guy is promoted which makes the hero quit right then and there.

It’s a very linear, direct way of creating a story event. Everything is explained in a way that makes sense. Cause and effect. It’s very much logical progression. The next thing that “should” happen, like when Bryan asks the girl where the house with the red door is. You know he's going to find it. She told him the street. Next scene opens on the door. It's very linear.

Contingent causation is things that “could” happen and sometimes do.

Maybe the hero has the flu. Maybe he’s had the flu on and off for months. People keep getting sick. Maybe his wife lost her job. Maybe they’re three months behind on their mortgage. Maybe he argues with a co-worker and every day at work is horrible. He’s stressed out, sick, angry. He walks in—his boss asks him for something, and he walks out again.

Nothing happens that’s directly linked to his job, other than a normal request to do something. He just can’t take it anymore.

You know that pressure you get when you’re upset, tired and ready to start screaming for no reason? Something has put you on edge? You don't "know" why you feel the way you do, or abruptly got mad at something. You just are. A lot of little things.

Contingent causation is very much the torture scene in Taken where Bryan has tortured the information out of Marco. He can leave, or call the cops and have Marco picked up. He’s not a bad guy. There’s been a lot of collateral damage, but it’s been in the course of fighting his way through a situation.

But,killing Marco is done in cold blood.

Because of contingent causation—the accumulation of a lot of things? Kim’s disappearance. Marco’s “good luck”, the other girl, Amanda’s death, and simmering anger. Bryan simply turns the switch.

It flows out of character and accumulated weight.

A scene without conflict would be Bryan “seeing” Amanda. She’s dead. There’s nothing he can do for her. He didn’t know her and his only connection with her is that she was with his daughter. He isn’t trying to overcome anything. He's scared and frustrated, but there's nothing he can do. The only point is to provide information and to add “weight” to the buildup in Bryan’s head.


If the heroine in a story is eating dinner, it also needs to have some weight to it. There doesn’t need to be conflict, but it needs to be important in some way.

Maybe the heroine is trying chocolate mole for the first time and loves it. She’s full, she’s happy and she’s safe. There is no conflict because nothing is stopping her from eating the mole, she's not against or for anything, has no stress. She’s sharing her food with friends, they talk a little, maybe some personality comes out. She discovers a new taste and likes it. Maybe she's attracted to the person she's eating with. Maybe we simply see her brush her hair behind her ear--something that will show up later in an important way.

Later when she goes to camp and the person cooking makes dinner and it’s frog legs, the heroine will try it and because she was okay with the mole, which isn’t directly linked to the frog’s legs, she will be more open to trying the frog legs. An action that "is" important to the story.

Eating the mole was the set up that made the heroine’s action of eating the frog legs one of a bunch of probable things she might or might not have done. Which makes the simple action of her eating the mole important in retrospect.

In essence, it’s a very human way of handling story events. Stories about character aren’t always A causes B. They’re usually A, B, G, H which create a situation where “I” is an option. And in the process, you learn something about the person.

Which pretty much means character studies have a little less plot because more space in proportion is taken up by development of character.

The Professional
has a very small plot.

The heroine wants to kill the people who murdered her family, but the villain finds out she survived the massacre and tries to kill her. The rest is taken up with things that deepen Leon.

Playing and making each other laugh doesn’t need to be there. There’s no conflict. It’s simply to show Leon’s gradual thaw and make it possible for him to grow. It also adds weight to his later decision to sacrifice everything for Matilda.

Contingent causation and scenes without conflict create layered work. A good example of this kind of deep character building is the Molly and Jones subplot in Suzanne Brockman’s Out of Control.

When Jones keeps visiting Molly, they already know they’ll be sleeping together. The same goes for actually sleeping together. There is no conflict anywhere. As Molly says, “I’m so easy.” And she is. But, each time these two get together, it shows character and lets us get involved in their world. It’s only when WildCard shows up and the story impacts Molly and Jones that they “now” have conflict. It would make perfect sense for Jones to leave Molly to die, but because of the scenes where they talked and had sex, its “understandable” that he does a silly-stupid chivalrous thing like sacrificing himself to set Molly free. It makes sense in the context of his character.

4 comments:

deanna said...

That's like life: you're in the kitchen and a fork hits the floor and suddenly you've thrown a box of noodles after it, and you're the only one in there, wondering what brought that on as much as anyone else. But you also sort of know things built up and had to be released. So in a story the things building up are contingent causation? I'll have to remember that.

jodi said...

:) Yes, very much like pressure and a release valve.

Hailey Edwards said...

This is an interesting topic. When I'm less drained, I'll have to come back and absorb this a little better.

I stop and ask myself often if certain scenes, which don't seem connected to anything, should be in a book. Ultimately, I'm always thinking several steps ahead. So while my cp thinks I've gone insane, I think I've discovered that the moon really is made of cheese!

Yes, I probably should get some sleep. *blinks*

jodi said...

lol, and why didn't I notice this comment here? Probably because I can't figure out the new dashboard--not that it matters since I'll be moving to WP soon, but anyway...

it depends.

Seriously.

on what you're writing and how you want it to come across and if you have cps who don't like the idea of contingent causation. It gives some people the nervous shakes because it's so...ambiguous, you know?

it's very much a character study way of writing things, and I think the biggest thing I got out of Taken was the difference between character-driven and character-study.

Taken is character-driven. Leon the Professional is a character study. While there can be contingent scenes in Taken, they work much better in the Professional.

...I'm tired too. :(