Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Writing Reaction Beats

The Insecure Writers' Support Group is so pleased have Mary Kole here today sharing great writing tips. 

Most writers know that it’s important to write strong, proactive action. (You can read more about that here: https://kidlit.com/writing-a-proactive-protagonist/) But how about proactive reaction? Huh? How a character reacts in a story is crucial—almost as important as how they act. Yes, the most effective driver of forward momentum and plot is still a character who moves toward their objective and guides readers through the story.

But characters can’t always act, or they can’t act in certain situations. Let’s say a character is overhearing a conversation, or trapped in a dungeon. Or they’ve just completed a big action, and are taking some downtime. It’s not always possible for your protagonist to be pushing forward (100% action careening through a plot is not very sustainable). In fact, breaks in the action are powerful places for your character to take a breather … and take stock of their situation.

Enter the reaction beat! This is a moment in the story when your character reacts to what’s happening. Think of it as a downbeat that breaks up action scenes, or a moment to integrate what has happened in your story so far. There are a few different times when this is desirable.

Here are some different applications of the reaction beat, including when to use it:

  • Action Synergy: You can use a reaction beat to integrate character and action. It can be tough for readers to stay engaged when there is endless action, such as battle scene upon battle scene. So what do you do? Give your character time to process as action is unfolding. Too much action can leave readers feeling disconnected from your protagonist. Giving your character some time to ponder the ramifications of what has just happened or prepare for the next action can be very valuable for integrating the plot and character aspects of your story. Between battles, a commander stops to mourn a fallen comrade. Their relationship has not always been easy, and the commander is troubled, as now it will go unresolved.
  • Intermission: Similarly, you can take some time between plot points to give characters some reflection. This is valuable for creating stakes. X has happened. And? So? Now what? X has not happened. And? So? How does this change things? A longer and more contemplative beat is very appropriate when you have been presenting a lot of conflict and tension via action scenes. (But writer beware: if you have too much introspection on the page, it can make your pacing, or the reader’s perception of how quickly the story moves, seem too slow.) To continue the commander example, let’s see our character having a quiet moment before the final battle for the castle. He checks in with his motivations and objectives, and remembers the words of his father, a great warrior who came before him. It’s the calm before the storm, and readers can learn how prepared the character feels for what’s about to happen.
  • Section or Chapter Ending: My strong preference is for narrative sections and chapters to end on tension. However, that doesn’t always mean action. Sometimes, a “reaction shot” from the character can be more valuable. This goes back to the question of ramifications, mentioned above. When a chapter ends on an especially juicy reveal or cliffhanger, consider giving the reader your POV (point of view) character’s reaction to the news. Especially if that reaction introduces or reinforces new or existing tension, respectively. The castle has fallen. What does that mean for the invading commander? Is this a happy moment or is a fearful moment? Did the castle fall seemingly too easily? Is there some suspicion, or some nuance you can find in the character’s reaction beat that readers may not expect? Alternately, you can wait until the beginning of a new chapter to really let the emotional ramifications of recent action bloom.
  • Character Turning Point: You don’t always have to wait until a section or chapter break to have something “land” with your character. Sometimes, a change of heart, new understanding, or another moment of evolution for your character is plot in and of itself. If you have built a character turning point into your story, make sure to take a reaction beat to really have it shine through. The commander has heard that the prince is an authoritarian ruler and terribly unjust. But everything the prince has demonstrated in battle has been honorable. Does the invading commander change his mind? Regret the invasion of the castle? Decide to join forces with the prince? This could be a moment to really shake the character’s foundation and surprise the reader.

These are four examples in your story that might benefit from strong interiority and character reaction. And most of these will not just be one moment, but several. Examine your plot and see where a deeper connection between reader and character is warranted. The more deeply you think through your character’s connection to plot, the more nuance you’ll build into your story’s connection to the reader.

For more advanced story and business insights about writing and publishing, please check out the new Good Story Learning membership: https://www.goodstorycompany.com/membership Join Mary Kole and the Good Story Company (https://goodstorycompany.com) team for nuanced exploration of all the writing and publishing topics that matter to today’s writer. You can also find Mary’s personal editorial services directly at Mary Kole Editorial (https://marykole.com).


Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of providing valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast and Crit Collective writing forum—to writers of all categories and ability levels.

She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She has been blogging at Kidlit.com since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those are great suggestions. I'm in the middle of revisions so I will look for ways to use those moments of reaction in the story.

Bathwater said...

Great site. I am going to start writing fiction again now that I have published my memoir.

cleemckenzie said...

These are fabulous writing tips and so helpful during the editing process.

Mirka Breen said...

This reminded me of acting studios emphasizing that most acting is reacting. You know an amateur when their attention is only on the lines they deliver rather than their posture while others are acting or speaking. Same for our characters in written stories.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for your tips, Mary. I'm getting close to the end of Act II and will definitely use your tips as I move into drafting Act III.

nashvillecats2 said...

Dome excellent tips. thanks for sharing.
Take care.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee and Mary ... sounds like there are some excellent ideas here - which I'm sure will help many in their evaluations of their drafts. All the best - Hilary

Computer Tutor said...

Good points, all of them. I remember early on when I first learned the importance of an 'intermission'--a reaction scene. That changed my writing.