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 towatchthe 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 painbefore you saw the hammer hit his finger. Nor would you see him clutch his fingerand thenhear 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?
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 thatactions 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 thatcertain 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 theaction 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 forWriting.com.]
Although the book I'm writing falls in the literary fiction genre, some scenes will require the characteristics of other genres. It will include, for example, suspenseful scenes with a lot of action. Over the past two years, I practiced my hand at different genres through short stories, working on the skills I'd need when I wrote my novels. The following excerpt is from one of them, an action/adventure piece entitled "The Way Forward."
They made their way to the head of the trail in high spirits. "White rectangular blazes mark the trail over the entire 2100 miles from Georgia to Maine," Michael read from the trail map. "Turns are marked with double blazes and side trails and approaches use blue." Michael stopped. Kaitlyn was no longer walking beside him. Turning, he spotted her heading off the path into the woods.
"Kait, honey, you're not supposed to leave the trail. Hon?"
Kaitlyn put her finger to her lips and looked back into the woods. A moment later she rejoined him.
"I thought I heard an animal, but it must have gotten scared and scurried off." Her flushed cheeks glowed with excitement.
"You never know what could be hiding in these woods, babe. There are snakes and bears living up here with the bunnies and squirrels." Michael wasn't sure if the look on Kaitlyn's face said his concern endeared him to her or simply amused her.
Kaitlyn's suppressed smile lingered in her eyes. "Tag! You're it!" she suddenly shouted, taking off down the trail.
Kaitlyn's playfulness infected Michael, and they made their way through the quiet woods, talking and joking. By noontime, they had hiked into Sosebee Cove, a remote nook protected by a wall of rock and ablaze with the colors of flourishing springtime bloomers.
"Do you hear water?" Kaitlyn asked.
Michael consulted the map. "It looks like DeSoto Falls is about a quarter mile from here." He looked to the left. "There, see that tree with the blue blaze on it? That trail will take us to it."
Ten minutes later they were heading down the side trail. It was harder to follow than the first one. The woods were thick with forbidding underbrush. The din of rushing water grew louder with each step, until its source came into view.
Melted snow from higher elevations had swelled the river to twice its normal size. Above them, raging water rushed over a promontory and crashed in billows of roiling white foam fifteen feet below. The noise was deafening. Kaitlyn pulled her camera from her pack and began snapping pictures. The air was much cooler here, and after a few minutes they turned to go.
"God! It's beautiful here," Kaitlyn sighed when they could hear each other again. Then, she sucked in her breath.
Following Kaitlyn's gaze, Michael saw the brightly colored butterfly she had spotted. She raised the camera to her eye as it settled on a trillium bush. No sooner had she focused the lens than the butterfly took flight again. Kaitlyn stepped off the path in pursuit of it.
Closer and closer to the river, the insect flitted from one blossom to the next. Finally, it alit on a branch at the water's edge. Looking through the lens of the camera, Kaitlyn edged closer. Michael called out, "That's close enough, Kait," but his voice was lost to the river. As she snapped the picture, her foot slipped on the moist embankment. She let out a high-pitched yelp that never made it to Michael's ears. All he saw was one of Kaitlyn's arms shoot out awkwardly before she disappeared below the bank.
Michael sprang into action even before his mind had time to process what had happened. He sprinted toward the river, ploughing through branches that tore at his face, shouting Kaitlyn's name. She was nowhere to be seen. He searched the white water churning with the vengeance of a stampede of beasts, mirroring the panic coursing through his body. Suddenly, Kaitlyn's head broke the surface of the water several yards away. There was an outcropping of rock visible further downstream, and Michael bolted for it.
"Swim for me!" he shouted as he ran, never taking his eyes off her. He threw himself onto the rock's edge, yelling, "Kaitlyn! Grab my hand!" He was flat on his stomach, reaching as far out over the water as he could manage, as the fast-paced current carried Kaitlyn toward him.
Terror was etched in every furrow of her contorted face. She could see Michael's hand but she was powerless over the current dictating her trajectory. The river slammed her like a rag doll against a rock, pitching her violently under the water. When she resurfaced moments later, she was heading straight for Michael.
Kaitlyn was floating impotently past Michael, but she managed to stretch her hand out. With astonishing timing, Michael heaved his weight forward and caught her firmly around the wrist. She dangled heavily there, her frightened eyes locked with his. The nightmare from years ago was brutally triggered, and fear threatened to rob him of brawn and confidence. He forced the old memory out of his mind and his resolution stoked his strength. "I've got you, baby! I've got you!" he gasped. Fighting the current and the water-logged weight of her pack, he struggled to pull her in. It wasn't until he got his hand around the back of her belt, that he realized he had denied the arrogating river of its quarry.
I'm a short story author, aspiring novelist, and world traveler who has penned fiction from homes on three different continents. I currently live with my husband and two children in the Atlanta area. When I find myself less inspired by my Southern locale, I have only to rifle through memories of adventures abroad until colorful characters or thrilling plots come forth. And on the rare occasion that none arise...I've been known to finagle a flight out.