Stop Handling Causality Badly, Causing Me To Hurl Your Novel At The Wall
He sat in a large stone room, baked by enormous firepits that cast a garish light upon the revelers, causing beads of sweat to form on their skin as they danced, and drank, and yelled, and sang, and clapped.
– The Way Of Kings, Brandon Sanderson
Ooh, this one really boils my piss. I’m going to offer you a compromise, and a solution. If you want your prose to be better, take the compromise. If you want it to be best, take the solution.
Again and again, I see aspiring authors use the awkward formulation ‘causing to’: ‘The wagon jolted with every rut and pebble, causing his injured leg to jounce and throb.’ The problem is compounded when more than one thing is being caused: ‘The wind swept across the white dunes, causing particles of sand to sting the traveller’s eyes and to clog the delicate mechanisms of his rare and precious timepieces.’
The dangling ‘to’ springs back like a tree branch to slap the reader in the face. It’s an eyesore, and it gives the impression of a writer unable to assert his or her authority over the motley thicket of thrashing tentacles that is English grammar. The Sanderson example is a relatively minor infraction – inelegant rather than truly wretched. But why allow such an obvious misstep in a published work, especially when the fix is so easy?
Here is the compromise. Change every instance of ‘causing to’ to ‘making’. For example: ‘The wagon jolted with every rut and pebble, making his injured leg jounce and throb.’ Immediately, we’ve eliminated the ugly little molehill of that redundant ‘to’. Let’s do it with the other sentence: ‘The wind swept across the white dunes, making particles of sand sting the traveller’s eyes and clog the delicate mechanisms of his rare and precious timepieces.’ Better, isn’t it?
Or is it? Now you might well object: ‘Ah – but “causing to” and “making” aren’t quite synonymous, are they? “Making” can mean “creating”, so in that second example, when the reader’s eye hits “making particles of sand” we might first think that the wind is creating the sand, and although in the context of the full sentence the true meaning is clear, the ambiguity slows us down, forces us to reread, and smacks of sloppy writing.’
And if that is more or less your objection, then I applaud you, friend, for your shrewd critical eye. Hence my referring to the above as a compromise. Here, then, is the solution:
Don’t treat your readers like dolts. Sentence order, proximity and context imply causality. The last thing we want is to feel the author’s elbow digging us in the ribs as he or she whispers: ‘Psst. Hey buddy! In case you were wondering, x was a consequence of y.’ Imagine if we wrote like that all the time:
‘“It’s over,” he said, causing her to cry.’
The fix is just as simple as the compromise, but requires more guts. Cut every instance of ‘causing to’ or ‘making’ and revise as two discrete clauses, separated by a full stop (or, if you’re feeling particularly fruity, a semi-colon). Let’s look at the revised example sentences, including the Sanderson one:
‘He sat in a large stone room, baked by enormous firepits that cast a garish light upon the revellers. Beads of sweat formed on their skin as they danced, and drank, and yelled, and sang, and clapped.’
‘The wind swept across the white dunes. Sand stung the traveller’s eyes and clogged the delicate mechanisms of his rare and precious timepieces.’
You’ll notice I cut the finicky ‘particles of’, too, in that second example. Again, this is a case of not treating the reader like a total clod. I suspect most people understand that sand is composed of grains without having an author wallop them over the head with the cudgel of literalism – a weapon renowned for rendering its victims unconscious in a single stroke.
If the rhythm of the paragraph demands it – and if the chronological relation of the cause and effect allows it – you might elide ‘causing to’ altogether, and leave the consequence as a subordinate clause in the present continuous:
‘The wagon jolted with every rut and pebble, his injured leg jouncing and throbbing.’
This is permissible because it describes a cause that is on-going, and an effect that is more or less simultaneous.
Right, my piss has returned to room temperature. It felt good to expel that particular demon. If you can think of any exceptions, please let me know in the comments – but I expect you’re kidding yourself. Any requests on future topics for me to turn my blazing glare upon, please let me know. Don’t forget, if you’d like me to take apart the first page of your novel or short story on this blog, please email it to me via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. Just your name, the title, and the first page please. I’ll do my best to get round to it in a future post.
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