Friday, May 6, 2011

Action Drives Reaction

As authors, we strive to draw readers alongside our POV character and into the action of the scene. The goal is to so thoroughly engross readers that they forget they're reading words on a page and begin to watch the compelling scene playing out on the movie screens of their minds.

Achieving this goal begins with an author's understanding of one simple concept: Action drives reactions.

Consider this: In real life, if you bring a hammer down on your finger (action), pain will explode in that digit (reaction). You may yelp (reaction), possibly unleash a string of curse words (reaction), maybe throw the hammer down and clutch the hurt finger (reactions).

Now, if this scenario were to play out on a movie screen, you wouldn't hear the actor yelp in pain before you saw the hammer hit his finger. Nor would you see him clutch his finger and then hear him yelp in pain. Actions and reactions must be in the right order for the scene to come across as realistic.

One of the most common mistakes in fiction writing is presenting the reaction before the action. How many times have you read something like the following?

Art Source
Pain exploded in Paul's jaw as Jason's powerful punch connected with his face.

Here, the reaction (pain exploded in Paul's jaw) happens before the action (Jason's powerful punch connected with Paul's face). The sequence of action and reaction is out of order.

To better understand why it is crucial to write actions and reactions in sequential order, it helps to recognize that actions are external and objective, while reactions are internal and subjective responses to that action.

To illustrate this theory, let's hone in on the action from the example above:

Jason's powerful punch connected with Paul's face.

Notice that this action is external, as it occurs outside Paul, the POV character. It is also objective, because any character in the room could have seen it happen. This action is the catalyst for the chain of reactions it sets off, so it must come first. 

The reaction, however, is internal. The pain exploding in Paul's jaw is felt from the inside. None of the characters present except Paul, the POV knows what the punch feels like, in this moment. 

Reactions are also subjective because they are responses to what the POV character perceives, what comes through the filter of his or her awareness. Though his impressions may not match the perceptions of other characters in the scene, they are what motivate his reactions. And the POV character's reactions are the keys to drawing readers inside the POV character's heart and mind, and ultimately into the story, itself. 

It's also important to the authenticity and believability of an action scene that certain reactions happen before others. Instantaneous, knee-jerk reactions logically occur before conscious actions and speech. Continuing with our example, Jason has just punched Paul in the jaw:

The immediate, involuntary reaction is the pain shooting through Paul's jaw. A split second later and in response to that pain, Paul's reflexes fire. Very quickly, though, Paul recovers. His rational mind catches up, and he's ready for conscious action and speech. Here's a revised and expanded scene:

Jason's powerful punch connected with Paul's face.

Pain exploded in Paul's jaw. He shook his head in disbelief. As his vision cleared, he looked up through stringy brown hair and smirked. Raising his dukes, he circled Jason. "That it? That all you got, little man?"

Notice that the action is presented in its own paragraph, separated from the reactions in the new paragraph that follows it. This is also important to the logic and comprehension of the scene. The transient pause in narration at the end of the action paragraph allows the reader to absorb the implications of that action, before going on to experience the POV's reactions.

The sequence of actions and reactions is cyclical. When the POV has fully reacted, he will be spurred to further action (which will go in a new paragraph). This action will initiate reactions by the other characters, which in turn will cause them to act, triggering more reactions by the POV, and so on. The sequence of actions and reactions repeats, until the scene ends.

Writing compelling action scenes is a skill that sharpens over time with practice. Writers new to the craft, though, may find that concentrating too hard on theory hinders their creativity. This is a legitimate concern I once shared. I would suggest writing the first draft with unfettered, creative abandon. Then, use the revision phase to scrutinize drafted scenes, correcting wherever the sequences are out of order and the reaction comes before the action. Doing so will strengthen your current manuscript, while honing your writing skills for fiercer first drafts, in the future.

[This article originally appeared on March 30, 2011 in a newsletter I wrote for]

Thanks for reading!