Action/reaction in fiction

In physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In fiction, Randy Ingermanson talks about events and sequels. And today, I’m going to advise you to stand that on its head.

I critiqued a short story for someone, and as usually happens when I critique, I learn something about my own style. (And you guys thought I only did it to be nice!) Without plagiarizing the piece I’m critiquing, here’s my version of one of his passages:

“But you can’t harm me,” John said, holding up a glowing stone.

“The Stone of Invulnerability!” said Snimmet.

Fairly standard for fantasy, right? My first thought was, let’s clean this up a bit. Have John hold up the stone FIRST, knock out “he said” (both of them, actually — speeds things up.) Give the villain some kind of reaction.

That’s when I realized, I do things backward in fiction. Because when I wanted to put in the reaction, I wanted to put the reaction before the action.

And you know, it works. Here’s my revised version of the above.

John raised a stone, its green glow reflecting off his wild eyes. “You can’t harm me!”

Snimmet backed away, his hands shaking.

I’ve actually broken those two sentences into two sets of action/reaction and in both cases, I’ve put the reaction first. In the first sentence, John does something before he announces it, which gives more punch to the dialogue. In the second sentence, Snimmet reacts and you the reader don’t know yet what he’s reacting to.

In both cases, you build a tiny bit of tension by delaying the information, but in the second, you’ve delayed it right out of the paragraph. The reader, though, being a sharp cookie, knows there’s something to this stone from the other cues: the fact that it’s glowing, the fact that John held it up while claiming invulnerability, and the fact that the villain recoiled.

In real life, that’s exactly what we do. We’re using cues all around us, and frequently we react before we’re entirely sure what we’re reacting to. In fiction, I highly recommend giving the reaction before the action itself because it increases tension. But don’t believe me (believing me untested is bad policy!) and instead try it for yourself. Write the same scene twice and see what you like. Try these:

1) A young mom is cooking. Her toddler son comes into the kitchen and makes a fake cough. Then he says, “Mom, I need a cough drop.” Write this scene twice, once with her giving an exasperated sigh after he asks for the cough drop, and once with her giving the exasperated sigh before he asks, but after he fake-coughs. (ie, she’s a smart cookie too and knows what’s coming. Don’t ask me why I picked that example, or why Kiddo#3 is currently faking tuberculosis.)

2) A woman answers the phone to hear her eighteen-year-old daughter’s voice, very excited. The daughter announces she’s engaged. The mother’s reaction is to close her eyes, flinch, and force herself to say, “Congratulations!” Split the mother’s reaction into two parts so she closes her eyes and flinches before her daughter makes the announcement. This tells the reader first that she knows her daughter, secondly that she senses what’s coming, and thirdly that she feels her daughter is making a mistake and yet is going to be supportive.

That’s a lot of detail to impart just by placement of the reaction, isn’t it? And it takes finessing to get it smooth. But it’s going to pay off bigtime in terms of added tension, involvement of the reader in the story (because the reader is staying one step ahead of you rather than being spoon-fed the information) and giving your work that natural feel.

Good luck!


  1. ivyreisner

    That is so cool. I don’t think you’re turning the action->reaction pattern on its head. You’re adding another factor, which is information, and doing it in a way that is completely brilliant.

    In the oldest for of storytelling, you’d have, “The arrow flew from the rearmost rank, striking Kamoses in the throat. The stunned Egyptians turned to see the newest recruit, Imhotep, fire the arrow.” The arrow strikes and then it is fired, because that’s closer to reality as they experienced it. The arrow struck and everyone would turn to see who fired it. Add a bit of “in the moment” excitement to the firing of the arrow (because Imhotep lowering his bow isn’t as interesting) and you get one form of reaction->action. Not good.

    The other form is “Imhotep turned quickly after Nefertiti called his name”. It kind of works better to have Nefertiti call and then have Imhotep turn. Otherwise the reader stumbles. I think that’s the one we’re more often warned against. You wouldn’t want Snimmet to react to the stone a sentence before John shows it, would you? “Snimmet took a tentative step backward, because John had just held aloft a glowing stone.”

    You have two reactions. Snimmet names the stone. Snimmet steps back. You’re controlling tension through the choice of which reaction to show first and that’s fantastic. I love it!

  2. CricketB

    Good observation! My engineering brain just doesn’t put down in that order unless prodded, but reversing it makes a better story.

    I agree with Ivy. It’s reaction -> information/explanation, not reaction->action. I like Ivy’s examples, too. You can put the actions in what might be reverse order to the clock, provided they are in the order experienced.

    It works (and can be misused) on a larger scale, too, as flashbacks.

  3. John Desjarlais

    The other thing happening in the first example is that the participial phrase (with the -ing) is in the ‘power position’ at the end of the sentence. Reversing this – by putting the action first (raising the stone) and the dialog at the end, emphasizes the words, “You can’t harm me.”