Hey Campers, this month, we’re going to examine BEATS, which are defined by Robert McKee (Story) as “Action/Reaction segments (within scenes) that end with a change of behavior.” In essence, we’re going to talk about action and reaction.
Fiction is about cause and effect.
Remember, we’ve been discussing writing scenes. Now action and reaction is just as important on the grander scale of plotting your entire story. The external things that happen to our characters force a reaction within each of them that leads them to further action.
This should be happening within scenes, as well. In each scene there will be BEATS in which our characters will interact, either with each other or with the world around them. As they react to what’s being said and done, they make decisions based upon the input, their perceptions, and other people’s reactions. These decisions lead to action which will cause another beat - another set of reactions and actions.
In an excellent article in July 2005 Writer’s Digest (The Logic of Emotion), Eric M. Witchey presents a formula of sorts that I now have on my bulletin board next to my desk.
ED ACE = Emotion, Decision, Action, Conflict, Emotion.
This is a restatement of the Action/Reaction idea.
This discussion would be lacking without input from Jack Bickham, even though he is not a screenwriter. The principles are the same.
In his book, Writing and Selling your Novel, Bickham does a great job of explaining Action and Reaction, which he terms Stimulus and Response.
Bickham teaches us that we must have complete Stimulus and Response transactions. If we don’t, our readers will be left wondering.
For every stimulus, there must be a response, and vice versa.
In simple transactions, like “I love you,” “I love you, too,” all that may be necessary is giving the reader the stimulus and the response. But when the response is out of the ordinary, we might need another step.
Bickham calls this step Internalization.
Here is an example from my book, A Good Place to Land:
At nine fifteen, she gave up the effort, laid her book down and dialed his number.
He chuckled but sounded tired.
“I didn’t wake you did I?”
“Did you get the girls off okay?”
Small talk - when had that started?
He didn’t sound like he wanted to talk. (This is the internalization. Without it, the conversation ends abruptly, with no explanation to the reader.)
“Well, then, I’ll speak with you soon.”
If you are struggling with a scene, go through it and pick out the beats. You may find that you have a stimulus without a corresponding response, or vice versa.
Another thing I need to point out is that stimulus is always external. If you ask someone why he did something and he answers that he just felt like it, you need to dig deeper. Responses are always triggered by an external stimulus. Even memories are triggered by something outside ourselves, like hearing a song or reading a poem. So we need to be sure that our characters reactions are appropriate to the stimulation. If they aren’t, we’ll either need to change their reaction or dig deeper for the motivation for that specific reaction. When this happens, it is especially important to make sure the reader is in on the internal conversation.
It is also important that our characters react to the actual stimulus. Bickham uses the example of a man dropping a lit match into a puddle of gasoline. This action will definitely cause a reaction. What will this reaction be? Fear, perhaps?
Actually, no. The reaction to dropping the match will be the fire. Fear may be the reaction to the fire but not to the match dropping. It’s a fine but important distinction.
A word here about POV in a scene. We’ve often heard that the scene should be written from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose. Another thought is that you should be in the POV of the person who is taking control of the scene. Who is acting in the scene and who is reacting? Each transaction builds on reaction. The person in control starts the ball rolling with stimulus, then, from there, it’s a building series of responses. The person in control is tweaking his control based on the feedback (reaction) he’s getting from his subject. In a sense, he is reacting to her reaction. Make sense?
Lastly, be careful that your characters' reactions aren’t coming before the stimulus.
Mattie jumped when she heard the door slam.
Though this sentence is grammatically correct, it puts the cart before the horse, so to speak, leaving the reader to unscramble the action/reaction. Now, this is done easily enough by the reader, but slows him down, sometimes allowing him to put the book down.
Okay, time for another example, again from A Good Place to Land.
Cruz and Gabriel came to visit on Wednesday, giving Rick the chance to ask the question that had been haunting him since he woke up.
The sheepish look on their faces gave them away even before they pulled Gus from the paper bag. (Stimulus)
Gus - the get well goose. Duck. Whatever. A hairy, formless, yellow bag of stuffed animal with a beak. A gift years ago for one of the PJ’s when he was hospitalized for a broken something-or-other. Gus had since become the revolving get well present. No one wanted him - ever - and if they got him, they were in a big hurry to get rid of him. Even if it meant someone else had to be injured. (Backstory)
All in good fun, but Rick would have preferred that they forget this tradition. (Internalization)
“Thanks so very much.” (Response)
“It’s the least we could do.”
“We also brought you chocolate, Sir.” (Stimulus)
They had indeed. Hershey’s kisses in every variety there was and one he had never tried. M&M’s plain, peanut and almond. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that peanuts and almonds were simply distractions from pure unadulterated chocolate. He’d give those to his torturers, maybe soften them up. (Internalization)
“Thanks guys. Hey, who flew us out of there anyway?” (Response)
He hadn’t anticipated that being a loaded question - and that wasn’t even the important one - but the look that passed between the two was classic. (Now here’s a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse. I didn’t catch it before it went to print. It works, but it would work better if I’d done it this way:)
The look that passed between the two was classic. Rick hadn’t anticipated that being a loaded question - and that wasn’t even the important one.
(At least, this way, the action/reaction is in the right order. Now, maybe you like it better the way it was in the beginning. I might, too. But when breaking the rules, we should be doing it on purpose and for a reason, not because we’re in a hurry.)
Well, that’s it for Action/Reaction. The series is almost over and I only have one more topic to hit from the screenwriting perspective. I think the topic is about used up.
Until next month, when we take a look at set dressing, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.