Cause and Effect in the Long Term

For most people, it’s easier to treat the immediate and even the secondary effects of something that happened as, well, immediate. They have a direct correlation, and they happen right now. But not everything happens immediately, and not everything takes a short time from beginning to ending. Why can’t these things cause effects to happen later, when people aren’t expecting them? Or better, yet, what makes them happen later?

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One is the fact that some things take time. If the effect of a certain decision is “The city gets built”…. well, you know what they say about Rome, and it’s not going to be that different with someone else’s city. In short, gradual processes get gradual results; sure, it’s easy to forget it’s going on, but if you’re having trouble remembering it, so’s your audience, and if you’re slipping in things that turn out to be hinting at it right the way through, it’s not a deus or diabolus ex machina, now, is it?

The interesting thing about the above is that there are two ways that it can happen; either the effect (or something in the chain of effects) takes a long time, or it’s the cause itself that’s taking its own sweet time in finishing. If the effect is known, the latter can be a good way to build suspense; people know perfectly well what’s coming, they probably can’t avoid it, but it’s still hanging there being ominous and always getting closer.

The human factor figures heavily into delayed effect, as well, particularly where emotion is involved. Even assuming you’re dealing with emotions that just flare up the moment the event happens, that doesn’t mean the character feeling them is going to act on them immediately. There are a mess of reasons for this, from avoiding the scorn of a third party to wanting to take the person who affected them by surprise to wanting to come up with the perfect way to act on it and stalling until that can be done.

And then there are the people for whom the emotions created by the cause event themselves are a delayed reaction, and thus the effect that comes from them is delayed. Unlike in the previous example, they don’t even have to be really good actors for their reaction to take the main characters and the audience by surprise; it’s quite possible that at the time, they really were if not happy than apathetic, and it’s only with a lot of afterthought that they realize that yes, this does sadden them or upset them or the like. These sorts of delayed effects are particularly dangerous because the people who set them off don’t have as much opportunity to see them coming, and because a nursed grudge can be downright intense.

Last, there are the things that are the result of a very long chain. A leads to B leads to C leads to…. we’d be here half the night if we started listing them out, and the chain slowly creeps into the background, still carrying on its merry way and occasionally being alluded to by something else going on, until the last few effects domino their way down and we finally reach Z. Needless to say, that’s going to take time.

And as with just about anything that can take multiple forms, what’s to say the possibilities are mutually exclusive? Why couldn’t you end up with a situation in which a long chain begins with a long cause, or somewhere along the line there’s an effect that takes a while to go through; where one person stifles a reaction and plots, and the next thinks the first’s action is justified in the beginning but gets angrier as time goes on? Layering on too many of the same delay start can look contrived, but mixing them up can lead to a more organic delay.

So why make everything have its consequences immediately? Sometimes it’s more interesting when it can build.

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