Reaction Fits the Action

Amid the sins an author fears—bland characters, bungled story lines, bad writing—the worst is: boredom. At the base of the worry is the knowledge that many writers’ lives are dull. You merely need to think how much time they spend in silence in front of a screen, and the reason for the gnawing anxiety is self-evident.

The response takes a variety of forms, and one of them is amping up what isn’t that exciting to begin with. This sin seems to stem from a conflict between an author trying to be realistic and their* trying to be entertaining. In this version, a modern-day Thor does not shoot lightning bolts but blows out a house’s electric box. The inhabitants still have a right to be startled. But if they are running around screaming in the dark for a protracted length of time, the reader is left wondering: why doesn’t someone go down and flip the circuit breakers back on?

That right there—the reader’s response—needs to be an author’s guide. Determining how they will respond is not difficult. Any writer knows that if they let a part of the manuscript sit for a while, possibly months, they will feel more neutral when they review it. If you sense that the reaction is out of bounds, you very likely are not alone.

The chief offenders in this regard are a character’s thoughts. While you can take some license—the character may be more unstable than normal individuals—you have to remember that the reader wants to participate vicariously in the story, and a character’s thoughts are one of the main avenues to do that. If the reader feels that the character is making much ado out of nothing, the bond between reader and character is frayed. When it happens enough times, the reader gives up on the character—and most likely the book.

That’s why you should try to keep the thoughts restricted to the gravity of the plot advance. If your character’s father has a history of yelling at the main character, she most likely is inured to it. Bye, Dad, I can’t talk to you right now. You would have to devise a novel circumstance, such as Mom lying in a heap on the kitchen floor, with Dad standing shell-shocked nearby, to engender true rage. In other words, change the plotting, not the reaction. Make the story more exciting, and the chorus will amplify the clamor.

Exercise: Comb through the manuscript, focusing only on characters’ reactions to events. Judge how well the dramatic weight of the one corresponds to the other. Earlier in a book, you want less dramatic material, so you can build to the better stuff later. In that case, modulate exuberant reactions. Later on, though, you may have to do the opposite: ramp up the action.

“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”
—Isaac Newton

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

*From now on in this blog, I will use the gender-neutral form.

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