The fundamental quality of stories is cause and effect. A happens and so B happens. The famous quote comparing “The king died and then the queen died” to “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” exemplifies this perfectly.

Consider what we do NOT like about stories. We reject a story when…
– it is too episodic
– it contains too many elements
– it is confusing
– it relies on coincidence
– it “cheats” by introducing new concepts late in the day (deux ex machina)
– (more subtly) the resolution is “too easy”

These are all failures of causality.

The last one is deserving of special attention. Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the story.

Little Red Riding Hood begins with the following (trivial) cause-and-effect.

LRH’s mother asks her to take a basket of cookies to grandma -> LRH sets out on her journey.

Without this causality, the story doesn’t begin.

But there is a deeper causality too. LRH’s mother tells her “don’t stray from the path” (or “don’t stop to pick flowers on the way” or “don’t talk to strangers” or some combination, depending on which version you read). When LRH does stray/stop/talk she brings about her own brush with death, further strengthening the bonds of cause-and-effect. Without this instruction and disobeyment, the wolf feels arbitrary. With them, we understand what CAUSES the interaction with the wolf.

Hence, when a story is resolved too easily – we sometimes feel that cause-and-effect is missing. If at the end of Star Trek II, the engines are fixed in time to escape the Genesis Wave, then the audience feels they are fixed in time BECAUSE that gets the Enterprise out of danger and for no other reason. If (as actually happens) the engines are fixed at the cost of Spock’s life, then the audience knows that the Enterprise was saved BECAUSE Spock was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The following film, despite some bright moments, effectively unpicks the previous films causality.

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Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect