November 29, 2012

Actions and Reactions: The End-All-Be-All of Storytelling

Rippled panel with text: Building a Story One Action & Reaction at a Time

This might be a deep philosophical post. Or it might be random thoughts triggered by my remaining sugar coma (7 Thanksgiving desserts!). You’ll have to let me know.

I’d been thinking about doing another post about actions and reactions in writing, but the more I thought about it, the bigger the subject became. My fascination with the topic of actions and reactions started when I first heard about Dwight Swain’s concept of the Motivation Reaction Unit (MRU).

A Story Is a Chain of Actions and Reactions

A story’s narrative is made up of a chain of actions (stimulus / motivation / cause) and reactions (response / effect). We find this same chain at the large scale of a story’s acts and beats and at the small scale of sentences and paragraphs.

No matter which narrative scale we look at, the response to the previous action becomes the stimulus to the next response, and so on until the end of the story. Stimulus —> Response/Stimulus —> Response/Stimulus, etc. is the shortcut way of saying A happens, which makes the character do B, which causes C, which then causes D, etc.

The Scale of Actions and Reactions

If we list the action and reaction scale from smallest to largest, we have:

  • Motivation Reaction Units (MRUs)

MRUs are useful for analyzing the sentence level of a story. We can make sure that we’re not skipping a step in the narrative chain and that the stimulus precedes the reaction (not: “She yelped after the dog bit her.”). Also if we want to call attention to a reaction, we can add more to the response (visceral reaction, thought, action, speech).

  • Scene/Sequel

Dwight Swain also introduced the idea of Scenes and Sequels, which I discussed in an earlier post.

  • Time/Place Scene

These are scenes in the traditional sense, defined by a line break at a change in time or place (or point of view).

  • Story Beats

These are the beats of a story’s structure, as found in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat or Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering.

(We can actually continue up the scale with Story Acts (the traditional three-act story structure) and Series Arcs (where one book is the cause of the sequel book, etc.), but we have to stop somewhere. *smile*)

Transistions: The Bane of Many Writers

Actions and reactions are the building blocks of storytelling at all those levels, and that means those levels all have something else in common: transitions. Many writers struggle with transitions.

Action scenes are very concrete. The characters have specific goals, motivations, and actions that we can visualize. Not so with transition scenes. They’re nebulous. It’s harder to know what the goal of the character is, much less the goal of the scene.

When we write, our characters react to what came before and then they transition to what they’ll do next. At the MRU level, those transitions can be very short “and then” or “so she decided to.” But at the larger levels, transitions can be tricky.

Sequels themselves are often transitions where the character is trying to decide what action to take. Time/place scenes usually need at least a “three days later”-type of anchor at the beginning of the scene. And story beats create one big chain of “characters react to story beat and then a transition to start setting up the next story beat.”

(Or if we go bigger, the “sagging middle” act is the transition between Act One and Act Three. And the second book of a trilogy is essentially a transition from the first to the third book—which points out how amazing The Empire Strikes Back is for being such a well made transition movie. *smile*)

When Almost Everything Feels like a Transition

For my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, I had a vague idea about what some of the story beats would be. That ambiguous plan was my compromise to the high word count required for NaNo while still respecting my muse, who wants me to write by the seat of my pants (mostly because he believes in “need to know” drafting and he thinks I don’t need to know anything in advance).

So with only a hazy idea of what would happen every 10,000 words or so, I had a lot of writing to do in between those beats. And most of those words were essentially transitions between the characters’ reactions toward one story beat and the setup of the next beat.

That style of writing taught me something about transitions that goes back to psychology and philosophy. Yes, really.

Want a Different Reaction? Tweak the Action

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

Like the Gandhi quote, marriage therapists tell couples all the time: “Don’t try to change the other person. Change yourself first.”

Why do they say that? Because how someone acts is always a reaction to something else. So one way to change how someone else acts is to change yourself. By changing the action, the reaction of the other person might change as well.

Along the same lines, whenever I struggled with the beginning of a scene over this past month, I invariably discovered that I needed to change the end of the previous scene. Maybe I didn’t leave the characters with a goal or problem to overcome. Maybe I’d answered one story question and hadn’t replaced it with another. Maybe I didn’t leave a hook to continue the narrative chain.

By tweaking the action of the previous scene, I was able to find a better reaction that carried the story forward. And with a little momentum, transitions weren’t so tricky after all.

Do you struggle with transitions? Have you thought about these different scales of action/reaction units before? Is there one level you have more trouble with? Do you have any tips for how to keep the narrative moving forward and flowing smoothly throughout transitions?

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You wrote that you already had a lot of thoughts about actions/reactions, so you probably already thought of this. But I couldn’t help being reminded of your post on characterization some months ago, and how changing even one character trait would change the way the character reacts, and the actions that character would choose to take. So it all really kind of does come back to actions and reactions! Tweak one thing–about a character, a setting, an action–and all that foll0ws will naturally have to change, too.

As always, thanks for the interesting and insightful post.

Teri Stanley
Teri Stanley

Great post, Jami;
This is stuff that seems like it should be somewhat intuitive, but when it gets to those sticky places where things don’t seem to be working, I see how this will be quite helpful!


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[…] Actions and Reactions: The End All Be All of Storytelling by Jami Gold […]


[…] Once you’re actually drafting, Jami Gold tackles transitions within a story by reminding us that every action should be a reaction to the prior action. And if you’re writing for an international audience, Oliver Randall demystifies the most common […]


Hey, just a thought about this, maybe a story can be seen like a Rube Goldberg machine? You know, those contraptions where various mechanisms each trigger the next one in a chain reaction.

Julie Musil

Great post, Jami! I tell ya, when I think about all this too much, my mind goes haywire. But I need to think about it to make sure I do it right!


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[…] But do you see all those “and then”s in that progression? That means the event of the hero making the heroine laugh is not directly affecting the following scenes. It’s simply part of the cause-and-effect chain of the story. […]


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C C Cedras

It never fails, Jami. I read the post in the email newsletter and it links to other posts that I need to read (or read again), like this one, and they link to other posts, and so on and so on. Before I know it, I’ve spent a quality hour with the virtual you. Such a lovely way to spend an hour. Thank you.

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