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Monday, July 13, 2020

Worldbuilding: Cause & Effect > Explanations

As I've been revising (and rewriting) some stuff lately, I've come to a realization about worldbuilding.

The cause and effect (which includes the stakes) are more important than the explanation.

You can come up with some really great worldbuilding ideas, some really great worldbuilding information, you can come up with amazing, sound logic for how your magic system works.

But those things don't matter near as much as the effect they have on the characters and plot.

I once spent days trying to figure out how I was going to "explain" how my worldbuilding worked in a scene. It seemed critical. When I took a break and came back to it, as I revised, I realized, that even though the explanation was cool and the origin was cool--neither of those things really held a candle to getting the stakes on the page. Aka: What these things mean for the story.

Stakes are about potential consequences, which means they are about risks. Which means they also must follow a sense of cause and effect.

As I've probably said a hundred times, but never in this context, the reader cares more about looking forward to later in the story, than looking backward about how the story got to this point. The only time the reader really loves looking backward, is when doing so adds meaning to the present or future. What this innately says, is that the reader cares more about stakes and cause and effect, than he or she does about exposition. Because in order to look forward successfully, or look backward successfully, there must be a sense of cause and effect to link everything together.

This is true of plot. This is true of character growth. And it turns out it's also true of worldbuilding.

Simply explaining how worldbuilding or a magic system works, might be fine all on its own in some places, but will carry much more weight, much more meaning, much more significance, if they include relevant cause and effect. And when you have to (for pacing reasons), choose between explaining a bunch of stuff or relaying cause and effect, it's probably better to choose to relay cause and effect.

This is not to say you can't do both.

Because in relaying cause and effect, you are also explaining some of it.

Cause and effect communicates why X matters.

For example, if we took Stranger Things, and spent a big chunk explaining what the upside down is and how it works, it wouldn't be as interesting as knowing its cause and effect. What's really interesting about it, isn't necessarily the exposition about it. What's interesting about it, is how it affects the plot and characters. What's interesting about it, is that because the gateway exists, a creature is kidnapping loved ones. What's interesting about it, isn't its own personal "Big Bang," but the fact that Eleven somehow opened it (cause/past), which means she may be able to somehow close it (effect/future). What's most interesting about it is not the fact that the toxic atmosphere exists, but the effect that toxic atmosphere has on the characters who have to go in it.

In some sense, this all sounds very obvious.

But as writers, we can spend so much time coming up with our ideas, and even if they are amazing, we may not see that cause and effect is often much more important than the great ideas themselves. Brainstorming and fitting things together and explaining how things came to be, can often be wild and fun. Creating a clear sense of cause and effect can often feel hard, more like work, and maybe even mechanical.

In His Dark Materials, the fact that everyone has a rendition of their soul outside their body is a fascinating concept. But what really matters is what that means. How does that concept affect the societies, plot, and characters? The fact that someone can harm you through your daemon or that its separation from you can create a powerful burst of energy, is much more relevant than just knowing daemons exist. It's more important than Pullman giving us a big long history and explanations of daemons when the reader first sees them.

If the magic of your world is about to undo the world itself, that risk, that fact, is more important than learning about the magic itself. And once readers have that fact, it becomes important to learn about the magic, because they assume that in learning about it, the characters will be able to save the world (cause and effect).

Get what I'm saying? To some of you, this may seem simply a post about not using info-dumps. While info-dumps fall into this idea, not all explanations will come across as info-dumps. Some of them may just come across as "important" information. But if we are honest with ourselves, the most important information isn't just a lofty explanation of how something works, it's how that something affects other important things at work.

Once the cause and effect matters, then more explanation might matter--but not always. Sometimes all that really matters is how X affects the story.

In some cases, the cause and effect might be brief and simple. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss sometimes links how her world is now, to how it was in the past. Because some tributes tried to take their own lives in the past, in the present, new technologies and restrictions exist to prevent that. Cause and effect. This in turn affects what Katniss can and can't do.

The fact a magical Ring exists that can turn one invisible is not as important as what that means (cause and effect) for the characters and plot.

Again, this is all generally speaking, of course, so use good judgement.

But if you are struggling getting worldbuilding on the page successfully, it might be because you haven't linked cause and effect. Perhaps you need to lay down the stakes.


  1. This makes so much sense! I've been struggling with how to introduce the magic system in my WIP, because it's hugely important but I rather abhor 'let's learn new skills!' vignettes, and I'm guessing this is probably why. Thinking about it as cause and effect already improves the story in my head; thank you!

    1. Sounds like we have been struggling with some of the same things. So glad this will help you like it helped me!

  2. I couldn't agree more. Details of a magic system mean nothing if those details aren't used to push the plot forward in an entertaining way. If I can't think of a way to use some rule in my magic system to add a complication for the main character, I drop the rule. I've seen too many authors having so much fun developing backstories and timelines and complicated magic systems that they forget about the reader and what they want.

    1. Yes, the reader really came for the story. Sure, the writer is going to need to know more about the world and the backstories etc. But most of the time, the worldbuilding should be playing into the plot (i.e. significant cause and effect and stakes) if it's on the page. In some cases, this might mean the writer has to actually change the worldbuilding or magic he or she came up with--either but cutting things that aren't significant, or needing to add pieces that strengthen the story itself. Glad you have learned to cut when needed.


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