Action & Reaction

This post is based on the concepts of Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Last week, I focused on the basic building blocks of a story: Scenes. This week, I take the Scene concept a step further to discuss the premise that a story should consist of a series of writing constructs called Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes (also known as Scene and Sequel). Simply stated, an author can use a series of alternating Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes to build an entire novel.

(a) Action Scenes

As the title suggests, An Action Scene refers to a unit of conflict lived through by the character. This is where the  external or plot-related events (as opposed to internal or emotional changes) happen. Action Scenes consist of three components: Goal, Conflict, and Disaster.

  • Goal: This is the protagonist’s agenda at the beginning of an Action Scene, and should be specific and clearly definable, the more urgent the better. A goal makes the character proactive, willing to overcome obstacles. The protagonist should not be a passive player, waiting for life to overtake him. He should go after what he wants. A protagonist who wants something desperately is an interesting character, even if he has character flaws. The reader will identify with him, root for him, cheer him on to victory.
  • Conflict: This is the obstacle or impediment the protagonist faces in order to achieve the goal. To state the obvious, an Action Scene must contain conflict. A protagonist must suffer, or at least squirm. Lack of conflict is boring. A victory has more value if the protagonist struggles to achieve it.
  • Disaster: Protagonist’s failure to reach her goal. As difficult as it is, we writers must deny our protagonist her goal. Foil her easy success. When an Action Scene ends in victory, readers no longer feel the compulsion to turn the page. If things are going well, readers tend to close the book, roll over, and go to sleep. To prevent the unthinkable, we must end the scene with a disaster (or apparent disaster, or at least a surprise). Back the protagonist into a corner, surround her with peril, and readers will turn the page to see what happens next. This is called a ‘hook’.

(b) Reaction Scenes

A Reaction Scene is a unit of transition linking two Action Scenes. The purpose of a Reaction Scene is to show the character’s reaction to the disaster occurring in a previous Action Scene. When the protagonist has just been slugged with a serious setback, basic psychology dictates that she’s not ready to rush out and try something new. She needs a recovery period. Reaction Scenes are generally where much of the internal conflict and character growth transpires. A Reaction Scene consists of three different components: Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision.

  • Reaction: The protagonist’s emotional response to a disaster. When something awful happens, you’re staggering for a time, off-balance, out of kilter. You can’t help it. A character must react viscerally to a disaster. Show him hurting or angry. This is not a time for action; rather, it’s a time for re-action. A time to wail. But your protagonist can’t stagger around in pain forever. In real life, if people wallow too long, they lose friends. In fiction, readers put the book down. Eventually, the protagonist needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. And the problem is that there aren’t any.
  • Dilemma: A situation with no good options. If the disaster is dire enough, there aren’t any good choices. The protagonist must have a real dilemma. This gives readers a chance to worry, which is good. The protagonist must work through her choices, sort things out. Readers must wonder how the character will wriggle out of this one.
  • Decision: The resolve to settle on a path of action. After much thrashing and soul-searching, the protagonist should select the option that is the best of a bad bunch. At last, he takes charge of his life again. Passive people who never make decisions, who wait around for someone else to decide, are boring people. Nobody wants to read about boring people. So the protagonist must decide, and decide well. Readers want a decision they can respect—risky, but with a chance of working. Now the protagonist has a new goal, and readers will turn the page to discover how the decision turns out.

Here are a couple of rules of thumb about Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes:

  • If your story tends to drag or grow boring, strengthen and enlarge the Action Scenes. Build up the conflict.
  • If an air of implausibility pervades your story, strengthen and enlarge your Reaction Scenes.

And now we’ve come full circle using a compelling conflict-sequel pattern. An Action Scene leads naturally to a Reaction Scene, which generates a new Action Scene in a never-ending chain. At some point, however, the cycle must end. In a romance, the protagonist will achieve Sweet Success and Happy-Ever-After, and that will be the end of the book. But until then, the alternating pattern of Action and Reaction Scenes will compel the reader to flip the pages.

Please note that there are no hard-and-fast ‘rules’ when it comes to writing. The idea of Action and Reaction Scenes is merely a guideline. For better flow, I often roll in my protagonist’s reaction as several paragraphs at the end of a Reaction Scene or the beginning of a new Action Scene.

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Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have an amazing week of writing and reading.



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