Writing Action and Reaction

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October 27, 2023

Action and reaction in fiction writing are used to describe the difference between plot versus motivation or the correlation between events and consequences. 

A character chooses to do something. This in an action. They may choose to go to the coffee shop, buy a dog, send a letter to the person they’re crushing on, or even throw a cup of coffee at their boss. These events can all be part of the plot, the things that make up the event of the story.

Reactions, on the other hand, are the character's response to events within the plot. This can be in the form of reflection, or emotions, or a lesson learned. 

Actions and reactions happen throughout your story. To break them down into manageable blocks, consider each scene of your novel as having at least one full action and reaction. When you’re writing scenes, ask yourself this:

  • What is my primary character’s goal in this scene?

  • What are they trying to do to progress toward that goal?

  • What conflict is happens that make it harder for them to achieve that goal?

  • What will be the outcome of that conflict?

  • What will be my character’s response to that outcome?

It’s important to note that a character's initial action may be intentional, but all the rest of the points that occur in the following sequence happen as a consequence. 

Your character wants something; for example, they are trying to make partner at their law firm, so (this is the start if a progression) they put in extra hours to try to resolve a case. 

The conflict occurs when your main character goes for coffee in the break room, and their main rival steals the file from their desk. 

The outcome of that conflict is that the senior partner accuses your main character of irresponsibility and takes them off the case.

All of that leads to your main character’s reaction. They can cry, get angry, throw things, rage quit because they’ve given up. But whatever they do, the reaction is going to lead to reflection and that reflection determines their next step. 

In this example, perhaps, your main character has a good cry, goes home for a drink, and on reflecting on the situation, realizes there is no way they would have lost the file themselves. This reflection leads to their next action. It’s a cycle!

Understanding the interplay between action and reaction in fiction is imperative for crafting exciting and compelling plotlines. It’s also a major factor in character development. 

Think of your own actions and reactions. We might intentionally choose to do something to help us achieve a desired goal, but if the action doesn’t pan out the way we intended, we might not choose our reaction. Sometimes, old triggers, previous experiences, or past associations with certain actions guide our reactions. 

Understanding that your character also has triggers can make for rich insight into your character’s motivation. These triggers can drive behaviors they may not recognize or control. And these complexities leads to interesting characters your readers can care about.

Ultimately, it comes down to author intention. As I say in nearly everything I write about writing, you can do anything you want, as long as you are intentional about it. If you work with the idea that every scene in your story has a goal, an action related to the goal, a subversion of their progress toward that goal, and a reaction to that conflict, you will keep your main characters (and your reader!) on a roller coaster ride until the end.

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