Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Action/Reaction Sequence

Write the action before the reaction.

Unlike the other "rules," this is one you really don't want to play with. In real life things follow a logical order. In our fiction--which represents a slice of life--we should follow that order.

This is not rocket science. All the same, it's easy when you're fingers are flying over the keys to write a reaction before an action. You may be visualizing the scene in your head, but all the reader has are your words to help him "see" the scene. If you get this sequence backwards, it's not that the reader will always understand what exactly you did wrong. It's that the power of the scene is diminished because the reader isn't able to visualize and "feel" the action as well.

She jumped when the rock hit the window.
Fear uncurled in her stomach as she listened to the coyotes' howls.

You could correctly rewrite these sentences many different ways, as long as you place the action before the reaction.

A rock hit the window and she jumped.
Coyotes howled near the edge of camp. Fear uncurled in her stomach.

Take a look at your manuscript. If this is the first time you've been made aware of this rule, you'll probably find a few backwards sequences. And even if you have been aware--these guys can sneak up on you.

Read Part 10


Timothy Fish said...

Not so fast!

For your second example, I totally agree that it is better to place her reaction after the howls of the coyotes.

In the first example, we have a different situation. If you had said, A dog barked and she jumped, we would all jump at the dog’s bark. A dog has a distinctive sound and we’ve all jumped at a sudden dog bark. When something it’s a window, it isn’t clear what it is unless we watched it fly or we look after the fact. By telling us that it is a rock that hit the window, you remove the element of surprise. By placing the reaction first, the reader knows that something unexpected has happened and then she can go look on the ground and see that a rock caused it.

The rule here should be that we always place the more abrupt of the action-reaction combination first. Protecting the element of surprise for the reader is far more important than putting actions in sequential order.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks for making us think. I've heard this rule a number of times at conferences and read about it in Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, but I still find myself forgetting it at times. Good reminder.
(And thanks for dropping by my own blog for an interview. The check--or is it chocolate?--is in the mail.)

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Timothy, we may have to agree to disagree here. In the "rock" example I wrote, there is the assumption that in context, the character already knows what hit the window. If the object isn't known, we still need to hear the noise of something hitting the window--which causes the character to jump in reaction. She can then look to see what caused the noise.

Pam Halter said...

Now, if you wrote for kids, like I do, you could simply say:

CRASH! SMASH! Beatrice jumped. What made that horrible, scary sound?

She looked and saw a baseball on the floor surrounded by broken glass.

Oh yeah, the joy of writing for kids is being able to use those fun onomatopoeia words. :)

Timothy Fish said...

I am not going to say that you are wrong if you want to always put events in sequential order. Space does not permit me to fully explain myself, though I may do so on my own website at a future date. I see deeper issues that I believe should be considered. In doing so, I believe it can be shown that a reverse sequence will sometimes produce richer writing, so I encourage you to keep an open mind rather than setting a hard and fast rule.

Timothy Fish said...

Since my last post, I have detailed my thoughts on the action/reaction order, if anyone cares to read it.