Creating an Outline for a Cause and Effect Essay

Learning Objective:

  • Create an outline for a cause and effect essay.

Among the most common college writing assignments is the cause and effect essayAn essay that covers why and/or how something happened. This type of essay requires that an event or action led to one or more consequences.. You may be asked to examine a cause, in other words, a thing or person that is the source or origin of certain effects. Effects can take the form of actionsA thing that is done, or the process of doing it., phenomenaHappenings or facts that can be observed. , statesThe condition that something is in., problems, illnesses, environments, and so forth. Regardless of the cause and effect you select, the development of an outlineA preliminary plan for a piece of a writing, often in the form of a list. It should include a topic, audience, purpose, thesis statement, and main and supporting points. is helpful. In this lesson, you will learn the two primary methods for organizing a cause and effect essay and how to select the method that best suits your subject matter.

Determining the Relationships Between Cause and Effect

It is important to understand what is cause and what is effect. While this may appear obvious in some cases, it is not always so. A cause may have multiple effects; a cause may in turn become an effect, as well.

For example:

I have decided to prepare breakfast for my family. While frying the bacon, I knock several eggs off the countertop. As I reach for a towel to clean up the mess, the dog jumps on the counter and knocks the sizzling bacon pan from the stove. Hot oil spills everywhere, burning my hands. The bacon also lands in the egg mess and becomes inedible. Breakfast is ruined and I am injured.

What is the cause of these effects? The initial cause of the accident could be said to be the falling of the eggs onto the floor. If that had not happened, the narrator would not have reached for a towel, giving the dog the opportunity to knock the pan of hot grease over. However, that effect—the dog knocking over the hot grease—is also a cause. The dog knocking over the hot grease led to severe hand burns. This is another effect. The dog knocking over the hot grease caused the bacon to fall into a puddle of uncooked egg, rendering it inedible. This is yet another effect. The effect is that breakfast was ruined and the narrator was injured.

This scenario is just one demonstration of the complexity of cause and effect and is often referred to as a causal chainA series of events, each triggered by the one before. Causal chains have three parts: the initial cause, the final consequence, and all the steps that link the cause to the effect. Also called "the domino effect.", or domino effectA sequence of events, each triggered by the one before. Another name for a causal chain, the domino effect, refers to the result of pushing over the first domino in a row of them - one domino knocks over the domino next to it, which falls and knocks over the domino next to it, and so on., because a string of events building on each other leads to a final effect. This complexity is another reason why organizing your thoughts and ideas into an outline prior to writing a cause and effect essay is essential. Without adequate planning, you might miss an event in the causal chain or fail to make relationships between events in the causal chain clear.

There are two major ways to organize a cause and effect essay: many effects stem from one cause or many causes lead to one effect.

1. Many effects stem from one cause.

In this type of essay, you are outlining all the effects stemming from a single cause. It is critical as you approach a cause and effect essay that you make the relationships between the effects and cause clear, as in the preceding example. If you address many causes at the same time as many effects, it will be unclear to the reader how they are connected to each other.


Cause: Childhood obesity

Effects: A number of immediate and long-term health and psychosocial effects


  1. Introductory Paragraph
    1. Thesis statement: Today's parents have an obligation to help their children maintain a healthy weight because childhood obesity presents a number of negative health and psychosocial effects, both immediately and in the future.
  2. Body Paragraphs (Effects)
    1. Immediate Effects
      1. Health Effects
        1. Obesity can result in the development of cardiovascular diseases, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
        2. Obesity can put children in danger of pre-diabetes, a condition linked to increased potential for development of diabetes.
        3. Obesity is linked to sleep apnea, a condition that contributes to insomnia, fatigue, and mental illness.
        4. Obesity is known to negatively impact bones and joints.
        5. Obesity contributes to a child's inability to participate in vital physical activities.
      2. Psychosocial Effects
        1. Obesity has the potential to bring on increased feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, and depression.
        2. Obesity (and its related effects of hypertension and sleep apnea) can lead to anxiety.
        3. Obesity may negatively influence the forming of essential peer groups and create a difficulty forming friendships.
        4. Obesity may give rise to feelings of isolation due to the inability to participate in vital physical activities with schoolmates or peers.
        5. Obese children are more likely to be bullied by their schoolmates or peers.
    2. Long-term Effects
      1. Health Effects
        1. Obesity is associated with higher rates of heart disease later in life.
        2. Obese children are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes as adults.
        3. Obesity increases the likelihood of adult stroke.
        4. Obesity is linked to the adult development of osteoarthritis.
        5. Children who are obese are at greater risk for continued obesity as adults.
      2. Psychosocial Effects
        1. Obesity increases the risk of long-term depression.
        2. Obesity increases the risk for long-term anxiety.
        3. Obese individuals experience increased loneliness due to difficulty in forming and sustaining long-term relationships.
        4. Obese individuals are more likely to experience social isolation.
        5. Obesity often invites criticism and judgment from peers, coworkers, family members, and communities at large.
  3. Concluding Paragraph
    1. Childhood obesity contributes to a number of dangerous, damaging, and potentially unavoidable short- and long-term physical, psychological, and social effects. Parents have the opportunity to encourage and foster healthful eating and exercise habits in their children so as to avoid the devastating consequences of childhood obesity.

As you can see in this outline, a number of immediate and long-term health and psychosocial effects (many effects) stem from childhood obesity (one cause). If you choose to organize your essay in this manner, it is important to clarify for your reader that while there could be multiple causes for the discussed effects, your essay is focused on one specific cause. For example, there are many potential causes of the effects listed in the outline, but this essay is focused on childhood obesity as the cause of those effects.

2. Many causes lead to one effect.

In this type of essay, you are outlining all the causes leading to a single effect. Again, avoid including more than one effect or it will be unclear which cause led to which effect.

For example:

Effect: childhood obesity

Causes: cost and availability of healthy foods, changes in the education system (increased seat time and decreased recess/gym), changes in family structure, and perception of decreased safety


  1. Introductory Paragraph
    1. Thesis statement: While many are quick to blame fast food and television for juvenile obesity, the actual causes are more varied and complex.
  2. Body Paragraphs (Causes)
    1. Providing nutritious meals for children is difficult due to the unavailability of healthy foods.
      1. Many American families survive on minimum wage, making purchasing healthful foods financially difficult.
      2. Many poor urban areas lack grocery stores.
      3. Many poor urban areas are overrun with inexpensive and unhealthful fast-food restaurants.
    2. Changes in education are associated with increased rates of childhood obesity.
      1. Many schools, particularly in poor urban areas, can no longer afford to offer "special" courses, including physical education and after-school sports activities.
      2. Schools have decreased recess time and increased seat time in order to extend study time for state tests.
      3. School food is often unbalanced and unhealthy.
    3. Changes in the family structure have contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle for children.
      1. More families are comprised of single parents and/or dual working parents, leading to an increased number of "latch key" kids who are unable to play outside after school.
      2. More families are comprised of parents who must work more than one job in order to support their children, leading to children's participation in sedentary afterschool programs or being left in the care of individuals who are unable to oversee outdoor playtime.
    4. Society's perception of decreased safety has led to a decrease in children's outdoor playtime.
      1. There is an increased number of Amber alerts (reports of child abductions).
      2. Twenty-four-hour news coverage with headline stories of child abduction, inciting greater fear among parents and families.
      3. While incidents of child abduction have actually decreased, parents are still unwilling to let children play outside.
  3. Concluding Paragraph
    1. While society's view of childhood obesity remains biased, there are in actuality a variety of causes contributing to the phenomenon that must be examined more closely.

In this outline, the cost and availability of healthy foods, changes in the education system, family structure, and perception of decreased safety (many causes) lead to childhood obesity (one effect) that the writer will develop when he or she writes this essay.