Monday, March 8, 2010

Mentor Monday - Reaction

For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

I learned that in fifth grade Science. It was one of those things that went in one ear and out the other because I was never going to use it in real life. Little did I know it would apply to writing, as well as the working of the entire universe.

Most of us use this formula without even thinking about it. In an action scene, if Dick throws a ball to Jane, we know enough to have it bean Jane in the head. Or she could catch it, I suppose. But something has to happen to the thrown ball, and someone should react to that event. Dick can’t simply throw the ball and walk away. The reader will want to know what happened to the ball.

Reaction also comes second nature in dialogue. If Lassie barks, Mother responds with, “What’s that, girl? Timmy’s in the well?” And of course, Lassie barks her acknowledgement. If someone speaks to someone else, they should reply, or ignore, or react in some way.

But maybe you don’t want the speaker to know the other person’s reaction. Maybe Mary says, “I hate you, Tom,” and does walk away. In that case, we need to see the effect Mary’s words have on herself. Is she glad she said it? Is she wondering how Tom took it? Does she regret saying it? How do her words affect her?

Even description needs reaction. Let’s say Jack wakes up and looks out his window.

The sky was the bluest sky he had ever seen, with not a cloud in sight. He put on his baseball uniform and headed for the game.

That description tells us what kind of day it is. But that’s all it does. It’s nice, but it’s not relevant. If we cut it, nobody would miss it. Jack would simply wake up, put on his uniform, and head for the game. But if we add Jack’s reaction to the description --

The sky was the bluest sky he had ever seen, with not a cloud in sight. Jack sighed. He had hoped for rain. He put on his baseball uniform and headed for the game.

Now the description affects the story. It affects Jack. It becomes relevant. Jack’s reaction lets us know he isn’t looking forward to this baseball game. It also makes the baseball game a bit more interesting because we now want to know why Jack doesn’t want to play, whereas, the first version didn’t make us wonder at all.

Reaction is what keeps a story moving. If you’re writing a story and suddenly find yourself stuck and don’t know what to write next, chances are, your characters haven’t reacted to anything for a while. One or another of them may have gone on a thinking binge, or maybe you got caught up in the back story. Whatever the reason, the solution is often as easy as going back to the last point where someone did react and carry on from there. Let another character react to the previous action/reaction and you’ll be up and running in no time.


I'm Jet . . . said...

"Jack sighed. He had hoped for rain."

Those two small sentences make for a huge change! Very important post, B.


Andy said...

I feel the need to react. Excellent stuff, Barb.


Mur said...

Ooooh, I get it:

Action: "In one ear..."

Reaction: "...out the other."

Great blog entry, Barb!