At the Chicago Writers Conference last weekend, author and teacher Eric Charles May gave a talk about causality in fiction. He said that we all tolerate accidents in real life, and while we may ask “Why?” or “Why me?” at various crises in our lives, we inevitably must accept that at times there are no explanations. Not so in fiction. Readers want to know why, and there must be causes for why things turn out the way they do.
It’s been said many ways, but when a character in fiction is forced to a decision of some kind, drama happens. You put a character under pressure and see what that pressure causes the character to do next. What kind of pressure? The kind of pressure/situation that forces a character to make a choice. When stumped for the right crisis, he said we might ask ourselves, “What would Dickens do?” [Answer: He’d take away their money!!]
Do you have to know before you put the pressure on what your character might do? May said no, and then he said this: “If there’s no surprise for the author, there’s no surprise for the reader.” I think that statement could almost be a mantra: when stuck or feeling ho-hum about a story, ask “What would Dickens do?” and then do something surprising!