The Importance of Being Logical (Causality, Blocking, and Pacing)

by Sera James

Today I’m going to talk about the human mind, and how we demand causality from life and its various portrayals, whether they be in film or text or whatever medium. Things must make sense. If they don’t make sense, regardless of how cool the resultant scene, we feel above the action. Not only has the dream-like haze of immersion been utterly broken, but we’re also now critical of the characters, the scene, and the author. Typically, we know when we’re doing this, because the scene suddenly becomes much harder to write. We need to configure the physics of it, because it doesn’t just materialize organically, the way that the other pages did.

Jeffery Deaver: “When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”

For example, I recently wrote the death scene of a beloved character. I wanted, desperately, for this character to die in an epic battle. Unfortunately, the character was also the victim of an intensifying and debilitating sickness. It simply wouldn’t make sense for him to be in this high-risk environment where the action takes place, and it also does not reflect true experience. When someone is deathly ill, they don’t then go on to perish in a blaze of glory, unless that final act of heroic sacrifice doesn’t require a long walk. Much more often, these people die from that disease, and it isn’t filled with the honor and dignity of impaling some beast and unchaining the damsel. Death by disease is bitter.

Ultimately, I had to let the character die in the way that was logical. He died of the disease that had been intensifying throughout the book, and the scene felt very, very right. Once I stopped trying to steer it based on my own prejudices (“But I want to write an epic battle scene!”) and let the character become a real person in a real world, the story materialized on the page like anything else you allow to grow freely in its own direction. Many writers maintain that characters can “surprise” you, as if they have agency outside of your brain, and I agree. Of course, it’s unlikely these characters exist as specters beyond the realm of consciousness, influencing our decisions as writers, but much more likely, our own minds demand that we follow logic, and in truth, we surprise ourselves. Sometimes you just don’t know how various elements will evolve over the course of a story, but when it’s all told, if you let it happen, it will feel right.

I started on a fantasy series with a heroine and a villain. Naturally. Sometime around the end of the second book, I realized that the heroine and the villain had… a lot of organic chemistry. 😉 I let him be himself, and her be herself, and they fused well. In such a way that it would be dishonest as a writer to continue their parrying as if they were truly nothing but adversaries. As such, the subsequent books were written to reflect the development of a love triangle, and eventually, the heroine and villain ended up together. It was a very rewarding experience, and hugely different than it had been intended.

On a smaller scale, logic is also at the heart of pacing and “blocking,” the stage term for the positioning of bodies. I daresay proper blocking is even more vital than pacing, which is saying a lot. Especially in scenes with high action and lots of movement, your reader is paying attention to the positions of all the characters with pinpoint accuracy. I mean, this is the only way to envision the scene, isn’t it? As the writer, you probably are too, but should reread carefully to ensure that the attention to this detail is consistent throughout. Even something minor, like the redundant mention of a character hesitating, causes us a mental stutter and takes us from the fluidity of the scene. Clarity is important in anything you wish your reader to mentally see. You never want a confused reader, wondering how far apart these characters are. Little things matter.

We subconsciously track time (pacing) as well. It’s a good idea to draw out a calendar of events and mark down the scenes as you go, so you, as the narrator, know with crystal clarity the timeline. It’s okay if a character forgets, or lies, but the third-person perspective should just know. You should also pay attention to the length of time you spend in-scene at these points in the time-line. I once portrayed a character being hypnotized repeatedly. I wanted to convey this abuse accurately, the sense of lost time, the confusion of the character. I ended up cutting several of the scenes. Not only did it become redundant, but it was just too boring, trapped in a room and uncertain of what is going on. The rest of the story was much more exciting. So, learn from my mistakes: don’t spend too many pages in the same room. At the end of the piece, you’ll hopefully have a cast of characters who move with such speed and efficiency from scene to scene, the reader doesn’t even notice how the days peel by.

Conversely, it would be weird to have a character find out she’s six weeks pregnant in one chapter, and is then giving birth in the next, with no explanation of where that nine months went.