Causality and Narrative Structure
A good story will have plenty of twists and turns, but the plot needs to be arranged into a coherent structure that will make sense to the audience. One beat of the story should lead naturally and logically to the next plot point or else we will become confused and lose interest in the narrative. This cause-and-effect relationship between events is known as causality.
Instead of thinking stories are just a random sequence of events, imagine the narrative is a row of dominoes. When the first piece topples, it causes the next piece to also fall, leading to the inevitable conclusion.
Since narratives are a mediated version of reality, writers have to ensure the cause and effect is clear so the audience will understand what is happening in the story. Event A has to lead to Event B. Event B has to lead to Event C. The first domino has to knock down the second and so on. If there is no connection, or causality, there is no plot.
When they receive a distress signal, the crew of the Nostromo in “Alien” (1979) are ordered to investigate the mystery. Dorothy has to save Toto from her evil neighbour and John Wicks wants to avenge Daisy’s murder. Mario always seems to be rescuing Princess Peach from the evil clutches of Bowser.
After reading this guide to causality, you might have to buy an aspirin to soothe your sore head.
The opening set-piece of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) is a terrific example of causality in storytelling. Watch the following clip and look for instances of cause and effect.
The protagonist and his guides are searching for an ancient artifact which is hidden in the deep jungle.
- Listen to the diegetic sound. The squawking birds and unpleasant chirping of insects causes the men to be frightened of the dangerous creatures that might be lurking beneath the dark canopy.
- When one of the natives sees the stone carving, they are immediately struck with fear and run away. The fact Indiana Jones continues his search establishes the character’s bravery and determination to succeed.
- Consider the line “If they knew we were here, they would have killed us already”. Conditional sentences are usually examples of cause and effect.
- A man pulls out his weapon to shoot Doctor Jones, so the protagonist, who is an expert with the whip, lashes the gun to the ground.
- The man runs off because he has been revealed as a traitor.
- The relationship between cause and effect does not have to be immediately apparent to the audience. When the protagonist fills his bag with the sand, the director of the film is using an enigma code.
- The two men enter the cave and look around because they are concerned there are deadly traps hidden behind the roots and cobwebs.
- They are carrying torches because it is dark.
- The spiders could be poisonous so they remove them cautiously from their backs.
- The men have to “stay out of the light” or else they will be killed by sharp spikes.
- Indiana Jones has to grab his companion before he falls into another trap.
- He treads carefully across the stone floor to avoid the deadly darts.
- Answering the question raised earlier, Indiana Jones replaces the gold stature with the bag full of sand, hoping to avoid another trap.
- Alfred Molina’s character takes the gold statue for himself because he is greedy.
- Indiana Jones has to roll under the dropping door or else he will be trapped forever.
- The roots snap because of the weight of his body.
- Finally, the protagonist has to run out of the cave because he is about to be squashed by the giant boulder.
With such spectacular action codes and a score written by the legendary John Williams, it is no wonder the opening sequence of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” is such an iconic piece of storytelling. If we have missed any examples of causality, please let us know in the comment section at the bottom of the page.
Let’s use “Twilight” (2008) to explore the importance of causality in a linear narrative. The story focuses on the relationship between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen who just happens to be vampire.
At the start of this romantic fantasy, the audience learns that Bella has moved state to live with her father. This event has occurred because her mother has remarried and travels a lot with her baseball-playing husband.
Bella is intrigued by the aloof Edward when they are paired together for a practical in their Biology class. When he saves her from being struck by a van in the school carpark, she is determined to find out more about her mysterious hero and his incredible abilities. Hopefully, you can see how one plot point contributes to next beat of the story.
Perhaps the most important example of causality comes from the main conflict in the narrative. Three nomadic vampires have arrived in the area. One of them, James, becomes obsessed with Bella’s scent and wants to hunt her for sport. This forces Edward to protect her again. There is a clear and obvious logical progression in the narrative, so the audience is fully aware of what is happening and why characters are making certain decisions.
In the film’s climax, James infects Bella with vampire venom, Edward defeats the villain and then removes the venom from his lover to prevent her from transforming into a vampire. In this way, each scene should also have a logical structure where one event leads to the next.
Interestingly, Alice Cullen is a vampire who can see the future based on the decisions made by people. This could be considered a supernatural version of cause and effect.
“Genshin Impact” is an action role-playing featuring an open-world environment which allows players to explore the fantasy landscape of Teyvat. In terms of story, a pair of twins try to leave the besieged nation of Khaenri’ah but are stopped by an unknown god who calls herself the “sustainer of heavenly principles”. She captures one of them and seals the other away.
When you awaken, controlling either Aether or Lumine, you need to find the lost twin. Thankfully, a spirit called Paimon will be your guide because she “would have likely drowned” but you rescued her from the water. She wants you to travel to Mondstadt, the city of freedom, because it is a good place to start looking for your sibling.
Each of these events are dependent on the previous event. In other words, you would not try to escape from Teyvat unless there was a conflict in the land and Paimon helps you because you saved her life.
Although most computer games follow a linear pattern, such as solving a puzzle or capturing a magical object to progress to the next level, you need to remember causality refers to the narrative rather than the basic gameplay, so you need to be careful when analysing these sorts of media texts. In “Genshin Impact”, completing challenges increases your adventure rank and unlocks new quests, but these rewards are only examples of causality when they actually advance the story.
Links with other Narrative Theories
In Vladimir Propp’s narrative functions and spheres of action, one event is absolutely necessary for the next event to occur. For instance, the hero will not have a quest if the villain does not bring some sort of pestilence to the land or kidnap the king’s daughter. Or the hero will not have to satisfy the donor’s demands if they don’t need to possess the magical object that will defeat the villain.
Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory also emphasised the importance of logical progression. Something has to cause the disruption which moves the protagonist from a state of equilibrium to a state of disequilibrium. Similarly, the repair will create a new equilibrium at the end of the story. Both of these movements are examples of causality.
In terms of Robert McKee’s five-part structure in screenwriting, the inciting incident throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, forcing them on a journey to restore order. Clear and obvious causality is also needed during the progressive complications or the audience will struggle to understand what is happening in the film.
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, claimed every effect in life had a cause. By contrast, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, argued there was simply a coincidence of occurrences. Either way, narratives are an attempt to make sense of the world, so there needs to be logical progression from one beat of the story to the next.
Causality is an essential part of storytelling. Without a clear sequence of events that are connected by reason and logic, the audience will become disorientated and choose to watch something else. This sense of causality will establish a clear opening to the story, should prevent the middle part becoming a muddle, and ensure the narrative reaches a plausible conclusion.