Archive | May, 2009

On Reaction Scenes

There were a number of very perceptive comments in response to my last blog posting. I’d like to respond to Cherie’s question:

Something I’ve been pondering as I read through the recent blogs: do you feel that the type of novel being written would or should affect the use of Reaction Scenes? I was thinking that in a romance novel, for example, it would make sense to go a little heavier on Reaction Scenes because a romance focuses more on emotion, and the thought processes and reasoning of the characters would be of more interest. Whereas in an action story, long and frequent Reaction Scenes would slow down the pace too much and only detract from the action. Would you agree with this, or do you feel that the books genre shouldn’t really influence the use of Reaction Scenes?

Yes, absolutely it makes a lot of sense in romance novels and women’s fiction to put in more word count on Reaction Scenes. In a typical thriller or action-adventure novel, on the other hand, you’d minimize the Reaction Scene length and put your word count in Action Scenes.

In chapter 10 of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, which I just turned in to my editor yesterday, I analyzed one Action Scene and one Reaction Scene from the following two novels: GONE WITH THE WIND, by Margaret Mitchell, and PATRIOT GAMES, by Tom Clancy.

In GONE WITH THE WIND, the Action Scene and the Reaction Scene were about the same lengths. In the Action Scene, Scarlett confronts Ashley in the library and basically throws herself at him. In the Reaction Scene, she tries to figure out how to deal with her disaster, and after quite a lot of pages, she decides to marry Charlie Hamilton. Lots of emotive stuff and interpersonal stuff for Scarlett to work through.

In PATRIOT GAMES, the Action Scene is much longer than the Reaction Scene. The Action Scene shows hero Jack Ryan breaking up a terrorist attack on the Prince of Wales and his family (setting–early 1980s, when Diana was still in the picture). It’s a good exciting scene and ends with Ryan taking out one terrorist with his bare hands, then shooting the other one and getting shot simultaneously. (That’s a disaster–taking a 9 mm bullet in the shoulder!) The Reaction Scene is just a few paragraphs. Ryan sees the Palace Guards coming with rifles and realizes that he looks a mite suspicious–he’s the lone man standing at the scene of a terrorist attack, and he’s holding a loaded gun. No long dilemma here. Ryan just pops the clip out of the gun, then drops them both on the ground, and then collapses on the ground as his wound starts to put him into shock.

It would be instructive to go through a few published novels and mark the Action and Reaction Scenes and compare their relative lengths.

Comments on Multi-POV Novels

Yesterday, I talked about how you set up Scenes and Sequels (which we have now agreed to call Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes) when writing with multiple points of view.

Today, JD asked:

In the multi-POV situation, isn’t there often a cliff hanger of some sort that encourages you to read through the other POV characters to get back to find out what happened to Character A?

How does that fit in? Is the cliff hanger really a division of the setback? Then when you return to Character A, you finish the “Action Scene”, have your “Reaction Scene” and move into your next “Action Scene”? Or, is the cliff hanger just the end of the scene and how he gets out of it is part of the reaction and I’m just having trouble breaking it in my head?

I guess my question is, What is a cliff hanger and how does that fit into the A-Scene, R-Scene structure?

Randy sez: A cliffhanger is just a Setback in an Action Scene. The pattern of an Action Scene is that the POV character has a Goal coming into the scene. He experiences Conflict throughout most of the scene. Then at the very end, he hits a major Setback.

Please notice that the preferred way to end the Action Scene is by showing the Setback without showing the POV character’s response to it. The reader can see clearly that the POV character is in trouble, but then the scene ends abruptly. That’s a cliffhanger. It’s a great way to end an Action Scene.

Bonnie asked, regarding multi-POV novels:

In some cases, wouldn’t you have John’s Action Scene, then Mary’s Action Scene, then John’s Reaction Scene and then Mary’s Reaction Scene? In other words, all the scenes are still there, just interspersed between the other character’s scenes. Perhaps that depends on the scene, and how important the information in the Reaction Scene is — whether or not it needs to be its own scene or can be conveyed in Mary’s Action scene. I agree with JD about the cliffhangers.

Randy sez: Yes, you can do it that way. When writing a multi-POV novel, you just have more options than when you’re writing a single-POV novel. I’ve written both kinds, and there are sometimes reasons to go with single-POV. (For example, when you want to keep secrets from the reader, such as in a mystery novel or certain kinds of thrillers. Then, if the POV character isn’t privy to some secret, the reader can hardly blame you for not telling that secret.)

Keep in mind that in modern fiction, the Reaction Scene doesn’t get as much play as it used to. Modern readers like more action, less introspection. So it’s probably possible to have a novel in which there are NO Reaction Scenes at all. (I can’t think of any like this, but I think it’s theoretically possible.) But as I noted yesterday, even if you don’t write the Reaction Scene, you need to know what happened there.

More On Scenes and Sequels

Yesterday, I asked for the opinions of my loyal blog readers on what to call those pesky Scenes and Sequels. Thanks to all of you for responding! I’ve read through all your answers and I like “Action Scenes” and “Reaction Scenes.” As one of you pointed out, James Scott Bell uses these terms.

I looked back at Dwight Swain’s book and discovered to my horror that he never said that a Sequel is a full-fledged scene. He called it a transition between scenes. So I’ve been misreading Swain for about 20 years now.

I also like the idea of calling the parts of Motivation-Reaction Units “Action Beats” and “Reaction Beats”. This solves a couple of problems with terminology very nicely.

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and ideas! I appreciate you.

Today, I had an email from a loyal reader asking how Scenes and Sequels tie together when you have multiple POV characters. This is a good question and it’s one I’ve heard many times. I just wrote the answer to it yesterday when I was drafting my chapter on Scenes, so it’s fresh in my mind.

In keeping with my new naming scheme, I’m going to refer to Scenes from here on as “Action Scenes” and I’ll refer to Sequels as “Reaction Scenes.”

When you have a single POV story, you typically write an Action Scene (containing a Goal, a Conflict, and a Setback). Then it’s quite natural to follow that up with a Reaction Scene (containing a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision). Then you use that Decision to give you the Goal for a new Action Scene. This gives you a simple alternation between Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes, on and on, until the story ends.

However, there are two common cases where you often want to break this chain:

1) In a multi-POV book, you often write an Action Scene in the POV of John and then follow it with an Action Scene in the POV of Mary. Then you might do an Action Scene in the POV of Santa. Then you come back to John and do another Action Scene. When do you work in the Reaction Scenes? Answer: you can often avoid ever writing any Reaction Scenes, if you can let the reader know what went on in the Reaction Scenes somehow or other. You can do this using dialogue. John tells Mary, “Since Harvard didn’t accept me, I decided to join the Navy.” There’s the Decision, and we don’t have to wallow through John’s pesky Reaction and Dilemma. This is pretty common in modern fiction.

2) You can let the reader figure out what happened in the Reaction Scene without bothering to show it. Often, you can do this by just showing the next Action Scene in which the new Goal tells us immediately what the Decision had to be from the missing Reaction Scene. This is also pretty common in modern fiction.

I recommend that whether you show the Reaction Scene or not, you should still figure out what happened in it. You are the God of your story, and you get to know everything that goes on. In fact, you HAVE to know everything that goes on. Omniscience is a burden, and you have to bear it.

Scenes, Sequels, and Chapters

A loyal blog reader has asked me how Scenes and Sequels relate to chapters. For those who need a refresher course in what Scenes and Sequels are (or for those who have never heard of them) you can find a nice summary in my article on Writing the Perfect Scene. So far as I know, the terms Scenes and Sequels were invented by Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

So let’s say you have your story all broken out into Scenes and Sequels. Is each of these its own chapter? If not, then how do you fit them together into chapters?

The answer is quite simple. Scenes and Sequels are typically anywhere from 1 to 12 pages long. Mine average about 4 pages each. It’s rare to be less than 2 pages or more than 10. So I just string them together in chapters of roughly 10 to 12 pages long. That is, I just keep throwing in Scenes and Sequels until a chapter is “full.” Then I make a new chapter and start filling that. There’s no reason to sweat too much about the structure of chapters. Chapters really aren’t that important. The basic unit of fiction is the scene, and there are two flavors of scene: the Scene and the Sequel.

Incidentally, is anyone else tired of this ambiguity which we inherited from Dwight Swain? Scenes and Sequels are BOTH scenes (in the ordinary sense of the word). Swain chose to create the technical terms “Scene” and “Sequel” but I personally have always found it hard to explain that they are technical terms.

I’ve just finished writing up the chapter in my new book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES on this topic, and here’s the solution I’ve tentatively come up with:

Dwight Swain’s “Scene” has three parts, a Goal, a Conflict, and a Setback. So I’ve taken to calling this a “Goal-Conflict-Setback Scene” and I abbreviate this a “GCS Scene.”

Dwight Swain’s “Sequel” has three parts, a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. I’ve started calling this a “Reaction-Dilemma-Decision Scene” and the abbreviation is “RDD Scene.”

In my view, this makes it a little simpler. Both of these are scenes. So why not make the names clear?

What do my loyal blog readers think? I have plenty of time to change this. I’d like to hear your opinion.