Saturday, 14 January 2017

Action and Reaction

No matter what kind of story you write, there will always be some kind of action. And any kind of action sequence in which something happens is made up of actions and reactions, no matter whether it’s a dialogue, a fight, a heist, or a love scene. If you understand how that sequence of actions and reactions works, you can basically write everything, from a car chase to a steamy bed scene.

Let’s start off with two examples.

First, a dialogue:
A: Don’t always try to take control of everything.
B: Someone has to, so if you can’t, I have to.
C: A absolutely can take control of a situation.
B: This is none of your business, so shut up.
A: That is exactly what I mean. C is not under your authority, so don’t try to order him around.
C: Yes, you have no right to order me around.
D: And you have no reason to chime in. Just keep out of it.
A (to D): None of your business, just keep silent.
B: Now you’re doing the same. D is not under your authority.
This dialogue could be spoken in any number of ways, depending on the characteristics of A, B, C, and D. As you can see, the words spoken by A set the whole thing in motion. B answers, C chimes in, assisting A, later on D come in, too, helping B. Dialogue is often used to bring in information which can’t be brought in well through other means. This dialogue is, of course, not a real scene. In a real scene, there would be more than just what is spoken, especially as there are several people speaking at the same time, not just two. But the dialogue itself is a sequence of actions and reactions, with the latter becoming actions which warrant reactions as well.

Second, a sword fight.
A draws his sword and slashes at B.
B staggers back and draws his sword, too.
B attacks A, but A counters the attack and manages to land a hit.
B takes a step back and takes up a defensive stance.
A attacks, B counters, but A breaks the counter and disarms B.
A lifts his sword for a last attack when B’s friends turn up and A has to retreat.
This is a very basic sword fight. Usually, you would have some dialogue at the beginning to set the fight up and a few words at the end, as A retreats. The fight also would be longer and the sword luck might shift several times between the enemies. Depending on how you bring both into the fight, either of them could be protagonist and antagonist. A could be a hot-headed hero who is goaded into the fight by cold-blooded villain B and has to beat a hasty retreat as B’s minions arrive to capture A. A could also be an arrogant villain who wants to make use of B’s missing experience as a fighter to kill him and is driven off by B’s friends who have come to protect their friend. During a written fight scene, you will also have instinctive reactions and thoughts going through the opponents’ heads. You will have other things happening in addition to the mere fight.

If you compare the first and the second example, you will see that they are rather similar. Usually, the people involved in the action take turns. What one person does or says has a direct influence on what the other person does next (of course it does, it’s a reaction, after all). This basic principle is behind all action scenes, because it’s the way action works. Every action creates a reaction. A reaction is an action of its own and does, therefore, create the next reaction. Like this, you have a string of actions you just need to work your way along. It’s always the same. In a fight, the string contains the moves the fighters make. In a dialogue, the string is made up of what the characters say. In a sex scene, the string contains the sexual actions from kissing and groping over several different positions to the climax. In a heist scene, the string of actions starts with the character sneaking into the place where the object they desire is being kept, continues with locating the object and stealing it (or failing spectacularly), and ends with escaping from the scene of the crime.
Your job as the writer is to create that string, to put all the actions and reactions together and create a sequence which is believable, interesting, and successful. If you’re not sure what kind of pieces a string should contain, then you should watch or read similar action sequences, pull them apart, and analyze them to find out how they work. Then create your own string, adding the actions and reactions you need and want in that scene.

When it comes to the side effects of action and reaction, keep the following in mind: the first thing is instinctive reaction, because instincts work without thinking. Then comes any kind of physical reaction. Finally, there is everything which is connected to thoughts. A trained fighter will not really think about the movements. He or she will counter instinctively, move out of the way, make an attack, block or parry. Once you are trained in something, it becomes automatic and your subconscious will handle it.

Add unexpected things to your string of actions. In our example above, B might have drawn a main gauche after being disarmed and might have used the close proximity to stab A in the arm, rendering him unable to fight. That would have changed the fight and, if the main gauche had not played a large role before, been unexpected not only for A, but also for the audience. Or you might have handled one fight like above and then have them clash again, only to bring in aforementioned main gauche when the outcome seems clear. (For those of you not familiar with that weapon, a main gauche is a dagger wielded by a swordsman with their left hand in a fight. The name comes from French, where ‘main gauche’ means ‘left hand.’)

Research the character’s actions. If you’re not familiar with gun, with fencing, with chemistry, with something else, go online, read books, talk to specialists. The actions will only work out, if they’re realistic. Learn to see them, if you can. Learn to play out a scene in your head. Then you will know whether or not it ‘feels right’ the way you’ve described it, the way it’s written.

Action and reaction are a basic tool for every writer. Once you’ve mastered it, there are no limits to what you can do with it.

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