On Writing, Plot & Structure

Novelists: Create ‘Reaction Scenes’ that Work – Here’s How

June 2, 2012

Creating properly structured Reaction Scenes is another key skill novelists who create pageturners have mastered.

Three elements comprise a properly structured Reaction Scene. They are as follows:

– Reaction – Hero reacts emotionally to the frustration of his key goal as it played out in the Scene immediately preceding.

– Rumination – Hero reacts logically to his frustration. He thinks through what his options are.

– Decision – Hero decides on his next course of action.

You will note that this sequence corresponds to the normal human reaction to a frustration or disappointment. We don’t immediately swing into Plan B, when Plan A fizzles. We usually have a moment of anger, sorrow, or some other emotion, or combination of emotions. When we sort out our emotions, the ability to think clearly returns and we formulate Plan B. As we sort through our options, we then decide to act on what appears to be the best of those options.

Note: Reaction Scenes are generally shorter than Action Scenes. This is because Scenes that feature thought and rumination are intrinsically less compelling than Scenes that feature action.

Here’s an example of a memorable Reaction Scene. It’s from near the conclusion of Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read The Notebook, you may want to do so before reading further.

Here’s the setup for the Reaction Scene we’ll highlight from The Notebook: The hero, Noah Calhoun, lives with his wife Allie in an assisted living facility. His wife has Alzheimer’s and despite the fact that Noah and Allie’s love for each other was extraordinarily passionate, the disease causes Allie to often be unable to remember Noah, and even to react in violent fear to his presence. Noah persists in patiently caring for Allie, despite the episodes in which she rejects him. Then a further disaster strikes: Noah suffers a stroke.

Below is the structure of the Reaction Scene following the Scene in which Noah is hospitalized with a stroke:

– Reaction – Noah’s stroke has left him half paralyzed on one side of his body. He reacts by labeling himself “only half a man now.”

– Rumination – As evening falls, Noah takes stock of his now diminished physical capacities as they will affect his key concern in life: his ability to care for Allie. He worries that he will predecease her, an eventuality that had not occurred to him before. He re-assesses and reaffirms the extraordinary love he and Allie share. The love he feels wells up within and he feels impelled to see her again.

– Decision – Despite the fact that the rules of the care facility forbid night visits, as Allie’s tendency to react fearfully to Noah is worse after sundown, and despite the great difficulty he now has walking, Noah decides he will visit Allie in her room to leave a love letter under her pillow.

This Reaction Scene sets up the Action Scene to follow, in which Noah must struggle with antagonistic forces (the facility’s rules and his own physical weakness) to try to achieve his goal of visiting Allie to affirm the great love which binds these two souls.

Does Nicholas Sparks succeed in creating a pageturner Reaction Scene? Countless readers who were deeply moved by this bestselling romantic story would seem to affirm that he did.

Recap: A novel of average length (75,00 words) is comprised of about 60 Scenes (Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes). Scenes can be anywhere from a paragraph long to several pages long, with the average Scene being about 600 words long. Reaction Scenes are generally shorter than Action Scenes. An Action Scene can be followed by another Action Scene. (i.e., Not every Action Scene needs to be followed by a Reaction Scene.) See previous posts for more on this.

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