Action and Reaction in Scene Structure: The Two Pistons Powering Your Story

Your story is a precision machine. If you were to take the shiny cover off this machine, what you would find inside would be an intricate mass of nuts, bolts, gears—and an engineer only knows what else. At the heart of it all, you’d find two huge pistons running the show. One of those pistons is Action. The other is Reaction.

There are only two things your characters can do at any given point in a story. They can either act. Or they can react. Those are the only choices. Within those two choices, the variables are endless, but it’s vital you understand the differences between the two, so you can identify which course is preferable at key moments in the story.

Let’s take a closer look at how these two pistons chug along in sync, taking turns powering your story forward.

What’s the Difference Between Action and Reaction?

At first glance, action and reaction don’t seem to need much in the way of explanation. We all know what they are. Action is when your characters do something. Reaction is when they do something in response to something that has happened to them.

Consider an example from the classic musical Meet Me in St. Louis:

Action: Esther and Rose take action by filling a dance card with the names of all the most undesirable young men in town and give it to Lucille Ballard, who refused to go to the dance with their brother Lon and went instead with Rose’s boyfriend Warren.

Reaction: When Lucille makes up with Lon, Esther reacts by trading dance cards with her, so that Esther herself ends up with the undesirable dancing partners.

Action = Control

In a sense, of course, Esther’s action in filling the dance card is a reaction to Lucille’s supposed jilting of her brother. And her reaction to Lucille’s turning out to be super nice has her taking action in deliberately trading dance cards.

If you overthink the differences between action and reaction, it can get confusing fast. The important thing to remember in telling the two apart is identifying who is in charge of the scene.

The character in charge is the one acting. When Esther is plotting revenge against Lucille, she’s in charge and Lucille is at her mercy. When Lucille arrives at the dance and insists on making up with Lon and helping Rose and Warren do the same, she effectively takes control of the scene, leaving Esther with no choice but to react.

Action and Reaction Are Linked Dominoes

Actions and reactions never happen in a vacuum. Authors can’t arbitrarily choose one or the other for any random scene. We must deliberately pair these two powerhouse pistons. They must work in tandem, or they won’t work at all. A continual onslaught of actions, with no alternating reactions, will result in a scattered plot that not only barrages the reader with an unvarying and exhausting pace, but also one that features scenes with no visible connections to one another.

Back to the old domino illustration: Action dominoes can’t knock into action dominoes, and reaction dominoes can’t knock into reaction dominoes. Actions knock into reactions, which knock into actions and so forth—until you have a perfectly balanced, perfectly paced, perfectly connected story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are you using action or reaction in scene structure of your most recent scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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