Media in Minutes | Essential Concepts | Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is one of those academic terms we use to discuss narrative. To understand cause and effect it’s useful to start with David Bordwell and Kristen’s Thompson’s definition of narrative in Film Art: “We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events linked by cause and effect and occurring in time and space.”

Stories are not a random series of events. Cause and effect draws our attention to the causal nature of narratives: one event leads to another, then another until… until eventually, the narrative is resolved. Stories typically omit those scenes that are irrelevant to this causal chain. 

Cause and effect also draws our attention to the way narratives are constructed. These events are not normal or natural. They’ve been engineered by screenwriters and filmmakers to create drama and engage an audience. In a three act narrative, an inciting event sparks this chain of cause and effect. Every link in this chain presents the characters with setbacks and obstacles as they struggle to achieve their goal, pushing the narrative relentlessly towards its resolution.

Cause and effect also illustrates the importance role that characters play in narratives. Characters are the main causal agents in stories. They trigger and react to events. In The Dark Knight, the Joker draws Batman into a conflict by staging an elaborate bank heist. In The Avengers, Loki threatens Earth by stealing a powerful alien artefact. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The First Order attacks and pursues the rebel fleet. In each one of these cases, characters are the main causal agents in the story. In films like Jaws or Train to Busan or The Day After Tomorrow, where the initial cause of the story might be sharks, inhuman monsters or just bad weather…it’s the characters and their decisions that form the basis of the narrative. 

Finally, causes and effect plays an important role in audience engagement. When the audience is presented with an event or some kind of information, they actively speculate about the direction of the narrative. Suspense occurs when films withholds the effect. In The Lovely Bones, the audience speculates about what will happen to Lindsey Salmon when she breaks into the house of a suspected murderer, as director Peter Jackson cuts to shots of him returning home. Mystery occurs when stories withheld the cause of an event. In Annihilation, the audience speculates about what happened to Kane after his ill-fated expedition into The Shimmer. 

In summary, cause and effect demonstrates that: stories are not a random series of events; nor are these events normal or natural, although they might seem to be; these stories have been constructed by filmmakers and screenwriters to create drama and engage an audience, often using the structure of three act narratives to do so; within these stories, characters are important causal agents who trigger and react to events; when presented with an event or information, audiences actively speculate about the direction of the narrative. Suspense occurs when films withheld the effect of something, mystery occurs when they withhold the cause of an event.

Now the tough question: how do you write about cause and effect as it applies to a narrative that you are studying?

Here are a few strategies. First, describe the chain of cause and effect in the narrative, using the terminology you’ve learned about three act narratives—such as inciting event, rising tension, midpoint disaster, climax and resolution—to show the constructed nature of this chain. To get away from simply describing the narrative, try to use terminology specifically related to cause and effect such as causal chain, causal agents, inciting event, catalyst, trigger and react, audience engagement, suspense, mystery, and speculation.

Doing these things will mean that you avoid simply telling the story and focus your attention on the constructed nature of this chain of cause and effect.

Finally, look for examples where the narrative you’re studying relies on cause and effect to engage the audience. In Scream, the narrative begins with a bloody murder and the audience is encouraged to speculate about who was responsible. The first episode of Breaking Bad begins with a pair of trousers floating to earth in slow motion as a semi-naked, gas-mask clad Walter White drives his motorhome through the desert like a madman, crashing it and preparing to confront police with a revolver. The audience speculates about what led to this state of affairs. Similarly, look for those scenes where the audience is provided with information that creates suspense and encourages them to speculate about the outcome of a scene. In Valkyrie, Major-General Henning von Tresckow attempts to recover an an unexploded bomb hidden in a bottle of Cointreau after a failed assassination attempt. Suspense builds as the audience speculates about whether he has been discovered. In Unbreakable,  the audience speculates about what will happen to David Dunne when he sinks to the bottom of a swimming pool.

While cause and effect is useful for analysing narratives, it’s also good from a practical screenwriting perspective as well. In Story, Robert Mckee touches upon the importance of a story that is convincing and logical and how audiences become disengaged when events are illogical or there are missing links in this chain of cause and effect.  In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby talks about how this pathway of cause and effect becomes the spine of your story. If the story doesn’t have a spine or has too many spines, it falls apart. 

Understanding cause and effect will help you both analyse narratives and provide direction for creating your own screenplays.  Thank you so much for watching, I hope that’s helped you to understand cause and effect. if you’ve got questions—as always—speak to your teacher and good luck.