Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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2 Comments

Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

2 responses to “Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

  1. Ronnie Tharp-Garber

    During my outline phase, where I’m sequencing the scenes, I tape together as many as 20 blank pages, 8.5, and write in 12 Sequences. I have 3 Sequences for Act 1; 6 Sequences for Act 2; and 3 Sequences for Act 3. I’ve already worked out 100’s of hours on my Character Web; premise; moral dilemmas; designing principle; theme; action-reaction; reveals, etc.
    I start with Sequence 1 and write out in one sentence what the scene is. Then, proceed from there, until I reach the Inciting Incident. Then I go to writing out Sequence 2, and so on. All the while, I’m asking myself, “Does this scene support, negate, or challenge the Desire Line of the Hero?” This helps to know that I need to delete the scene. I’m also asking myself, “Where is this scene in the overall Character Arc of the story?” Having worked backwards to do this with countless films, whereby I deconstructed the stories, it was fascinating to me that this approach really works! I then take my red pen and mark all 12 Sequences up with notations about what story beats are at work. One thing among many is the question of: What kind of opponents are blocking the Hero through his/her Desire line and what is their motivation? Focus on the Desire line of the Opponents – This ramps up the conflict. So much more to write, but Print to Proof really helps me in the outline phase.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Ronnie,
      Great that you’re looking at the Opponents’ desire line. A very good way to walk through the structure. One thing I do is look at a scene, in the outline or rewrite phase, and ask, “Does this affect the ending?” If it doesn’t (at least in a minor way) it gives me ammunition toward cutting it.
      Will

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