Friday, August 21, 2015

Causality in Fiction

If you have watched Fate/Stay-Night then you are familiar with the Gae Bolg, Lancer's magical spear from his legend as Cú Chulainn. Within F/SN this spear has two major powers and the one I am most concerned with is the power to unfailingly strike the heart. To do this, the spear warps causality. In normal, real situations, the blade of the spear would strike the heart as a result of the path it traveled to get there. In Gae Bolg's case, the path of the spear is a result of the spear striking the heart. I start with this because it is not the only example of manipulated causality in fiction. In fact, the vast majority of fiction is an example of the same sort of reversal.


It is possible for someone to write an entire story, start to first and letting it unfold as they write but this is not the most common situation. Most of the time, when we are writing a story there is a seed of an idea which we build the story around. A lot of times, that seed is a scene of some sort. It can be at the beginning of the story, in the middle or at the end. Regardless, the story is built around that seed. It is the cause of everything else happening everything before or after it is a result.

This is rather important to think about while writing because this fact is a source for one of the things that can be perceived as a weakness of the story. I've had other essays dealing with the innately artificial nature of a written piece of fiction as well as the importance of things having some level of predictability and a sense of likelihood. I've also talked about the tendency of some characters to have plot armor. This all ties in to this situation of causality in writing. This is the source of what people mean when they say "plot demands."

In general, once we have a seed, we start asking questions about "why" and "how" the scene that serves as the seed happened. Basically, we treat it like a piece of evidence and an end result and then we use inductive reasoning to work backwards and constructed a likely turn of events. Constructing is a good word for this process because it is quite literally what we are doing. However, since this is also the same process we use to understand real events, it creates a natural seeming set of circumstances that appear to lead toward the event in question as adverse growing out of it. 

A major difference between the process of inductive and deductive reasoning to understand a sequence of real events and the process of building a sequence of fictional events is that a sequence of fictional events is likely to be a lot cleaner than a sequence of real events. Real timelines are cluttered with coincidences and circumstances that have no real relation to the events in question. In fiction, there is no such thing as coincidence. There is no space in a novel to be wasted on elements that are unimportant to the storyline. Everything is planned out and placed there for a reason. Even red herrings at the very least have the purpose of distracting the audience from the correct path. Films and television contain exceptions to this to a degree, as there are often things going on in the background or which happen on camera that weren't planned in the script. Ultimately, however, someone sits down and chooses whether or not a particular shot gets used, so it all comes down to planning anyway.

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