Small Scale Scene Writing - The Action >> Reaction Cycle

This idea is based on a technique described in Dwight Swain's amazing, fantastic book: Techniques of the selling writer, which is chock full of practical advice on writing selling fiction. We also owe a debt of gratitude to The Snowflake Guy, for bringing it to our attention...

Dedications out the way - let's get to it. So, what do we mean by the Action >> Reaction Cycle?

Well, when you write, you will usually have a mix of things that are happening around your protagonist (for the purpose of this article, we'll assume the protagonist is the point of view character in any given seen), and things that your protagonist is thinking and doing.

If you don't know any better, you will switch between these things randomly, putting down whatever 'feels' right. Many talented writers will naturally put things in the Action >> Reaction Cycle that I'm about to decscribe, but some of us benefit from learning the nuts and bolt of it in a more formal fashion.

Note - It should go without saying that any technique or tool that writers use, including the Action >> Reaction Cycle, are exactly that - techniques and tools. They are not laws. As a creative, you must decide for yourself when you will stick doggedly to these concepts and when you will deviate, because you know better. Just make sure you do know better.

The Action >> Reaction Cycle


In one paragraph, you should have an outward description of the action. This should be completely detached from the characters point of view or opinion on the matter. FACT only. No bias based on the protagonist. This is easier said than done.


Reaction can be split into three parts: Gut, Instinctive, Rational. Let's look at those in more detail.

Gut - this should be a visceral, bodily emotional response to the Action that's been observed. Something like a cold chill down the spine, a tightening of the throat or a twisting in the gut. It doesn't involve any movement or controlled thought.

Instinctive - This is still controlled by the body rather than the mind, but it will be more deliberate. It might be leaping back, or reaching for a gun. How useful this action is will depend on the character and how well they deal with the Action and their gut response to it.

Rational - Finally, now we've got through all the gut, instinctive stuff (which probably only took seconds, or less), we can get to the controlled part of things, where the character gets to express themselves. They may have a thought: "Not again. Oh no. Not again.", or they may carry out a controlled, deliberate action: "She raised the gun, aimed, and fired." Or both.

When you write, you should cycle your paragraphs between Action and Reaction. The Reaction paragraph does not have to include every part (gut, instinctive, rational) every time, in fact, it would get a bit weird if it did. But it should include at least one, and they should stay in the correct order.

An Example

We'll start with an example where it's done wrong, with all the elements mixed up and in the wrong order:

Lorelei hugged her legs remained fixed in place, control stolen from her body. So this was it. She was going end up just like all the others, she thought as she watched the figure at the other end of the beach walking towards her, slowly closing the distance. She felt gripped with a mixture of fear and desolation.

You may think that reads okay, or you may not. But either way, let's compare it to what happens if we rewrite it to follow the Action >> Reaction Cycle:

There was a figure at the other end of the beach, walking towards her.

Fear gripped Lorelei, stealing control of her body, so all she could do was remain fixed in place, still hugging her legs, watching helplessly as the figure closed the distance between them.  So this was it. She was going to end up just like the others.

In this example the first paragraph is only a single line, but it is an, external, indisputable fact. There's a figure, he's at the other end of the beach, he's walking towards her.

Next we have the Reaction, first the gut (fear gripping her), then the instinct (all she could do was remain fixed in place, watching helplessly, etc), and finally her rational thoughts about the matter (deciding she's about to meet her doom).

Hopefully you'll agree that the second version is much stronger, and  plunges into the story so it feels more real, much more so than the first one.

So if you've got a scene that you feel is somehow lacking immediacy or there's just something not quite right that you can't put your finger on, try hacking it up and rewriting while religiously following the Action >> Reaction Cycle, and you should find some impressive results.

The Novel Factory - Novel writing software
If you've found this article useful, then you might be interested in reading our Novel Writing Roadmap. And if you like that - then you might be tempted to download a free trial of The Novel Factory, which is a software programme we've developed to help writers learn their craft, especially aimed at new writers completing their first novel, but also useful for established novelists in organising their notes, locations, characters and scenes.

If you agree, don't agree or have any other comments on this article, I'd love to hear them. And I'd particularly love to see before and after examples of this technique in action.