Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reaction Scenes

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Reaction scenes follow action scenes and show the point of view character trying to deal with the resolution of the action scene. They are prime places for a writer to bolster the reader's emotional connection with the character. They are ideally suited for slowing the pace of a story, introducing a pause in the action and allowing both characters and readers to catch their breath.

Like action scenes, reaction scenes have three phases.


The character has just experienced something of considerable emotional impact. There has been drama. There has been action. Human nature dictates that the first thing a person has to do is react emotionally. How does the resolution of the preceding action scene make them feel? Frustrated? Afraid? Enraged? Giving the character time to react to events is vital to making them accessible and sympathetic to the reader. The prince has discovered Rapunzel's hair is gone. There's no way in and he can hear the ogres stirring. He's crushed... it seemed so easy when he planned things out back in the safety of his fortress. He's also afraid because his sword isn't going to be much use against a family of ogres.


After the character has had time to react, it's time to get over the past and concentrate on the future. The resolution of the action scene makes the reader ask, "Now what?" It should make the character ask the same thing. Only the character had better come up with an answer.

There should be several possible answers in the writer's mind, regardless of how many of which the reader will become aware. Each one should illuminate some aspect of the character's personality. Rapunzel's lost her hair, and the ogres are coming. If the prince is a coward, he could run away. If he's brave but stupid, he could stand his ground and try to defeat the ogres. If he's clever he might hide in the woods and pretend to be an army, running from tree to tree and shouting orders, hoping to frighten the ogres off. If he's a dare-devil, he might try to climb the tower without follicular assistance.


The character chooses one of the options. Now they've got a new goal, and that leads us straight into the next action scene where the character will act on this decision. Will the character succeed with this new action? Likely not, but then what will happen next? The prince decides to hide in the woods and pretend to be an army. Ogres are dumb. They might fall for it. Of course, if they don't, he's wandering around in unfamiliar territory surrounded by ogres that know the terrain...

Unlike action scenes, reaction scenes seem to be kind of optional. To dispute Newton (does that make me a bad physicist, or just a writer who wants to be good?), not every action scene requires a full reaction scene. Sometimes, a few lines are sufficient to provide all the emotional connection the reader needs, and providing more carries us down from drama into melodrama. Sometimes, reactions, dilemmas and decisions can be implied with a few words at the end of the action scene and a true reaction "scene" can be skipped altogether.

As I said before, the flow of action and reaction scenes creates a rhythm in the story, shaping the pace and tone through how much emphasis is placed on each type. The hard part, for me, is learning to write this way, to think in terms of action and reaction during composition. Many times I look back on work I've done and have difficulty figuring out what the character goal for a particular action scene is. Without that, the rest of the scene lies lifeless on the page and I either have to rewrite it or kill it.

It's a lot of effort, but I've seen the technique work very well in Butcher's Dresden novels, Lake's Mainspring/Escapement/Pinion novels and even Yamamoto's work (and he doesn't even write in English). I recently wrote a short story as practice, concentrating on action and reaction scenes. It's the first time anyone in my writing group has told me they couldn't set down without finishing something I'd written.

So, you know... there's that.

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