Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Universal Law of Action and Reaction

Boxing Gloves And Dumbells 1
How would you react to being punched in the face? (image courtesy of andysteel at Free Images)

Newton's third law of motion is that for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. This is a physical law of the universe. Unbreakable. Therefore, generally expected. Even when we aren't dealing with motion, we live in a world of cause and effect. I hit you, and it might be a hundred different things, but there are effects; you're pissed off at me, your nose bleeds, you realise you've been an idiot, etc.

Breaking The Rules:

Of course when writing we get to break the rules all the time. We can have people fly or jump over tall buildings in a single bound. But when we break these rules we always need to give an explanation. That explanation may be as simple as 'magic', but it is an explanation all the same. When we don't, our readers get annoyed. We accept Harry Potter flying around on broomsticks, but would get annoyed if Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice suddenly did, if we didn't give a good enough explanation.

So as writers we are usually pretty good at the big ones; they are flying because there's magic, they are time traveling because they have a machine. Simple. 

However, it's amazing how frequently even good writers break some of the more basic rules of the universe, such as cause and effect, without thinking there needs to be an explanation. Unfortunately, they are wrong. The audience always expects an action to have a reaction. 

Action and Reaction:

It is a rare thing for a man to walk into a room with a gun and absolutely nothing happen without some explanation. In some situations even standing up causes a reaction. 
'Where are you going?' The girlfriend pouts. 
The boyfriend sighs and sits down again. 
Action, reaction, re-reaction. That's how life works. 

So it is a lot more noticeable than obviously some writers think when we don't have a strong pattern of action and reaction. 

Today I started reading Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson, which is an award winning YA book. It took me a while to work out why it was irritating me so much. Then I read this section and it finally dawned on me;

[We are following a young girl called Ping and the dragon Danzi (shape-changed to look like an old man) who are trying to get to the Ocean. They believe they have escaped the clutches of the dragon hunter Diao and have just accepted hospitality in a village only to find Diao is also there.]

She knew he had recognised her. He looked at the old man with the greenish face and the long side whiskers. His half-smile became whole.
"That girl is an evil sorceress," Diao shouted. "The old man is a shape-changing demon."
The villagers stared at him in surprise.
"Don't just stand there. Seize them!"
The entire population of the village left their chores to see what the fuss was about.
"I've come across them before," Diao contined.
The villagers looked from the young girl and her frail grandfather to the grimy man with the unpleasant voice. They gathered protectively around Ping and Danzi, blocking any chance of escape.
"Don't trust them because they look innocent."
Hua [Ping's rat] chose that moment to reposition himself in the folds of Ping's gown.
"See for yourselves," said Diao. "The girl has creatures living in her gown."
The villagers' eyes widened as they did indeed see something moving beneath the girl's clothing. They took a step away from Ping and towards Diao.
"And the old man can't stand the touch of iron," said the dragon hunter.
One of the villagers picked up an iron scythe and help it up against the old man's arm. Danzi groaned with pain. The villagers backed further away.
"I know their ways," said Diao. "I will protect you from these evil demons."
The dragon hunter lunged forward and struck Danzi with his sword. Danzi screamed and fell to his knees. His cry was like a screech of tearing metal.
Diao strode over and grabbed Ping. The villagers shouted encouragement to the foul-smelling man.
"We'll give you all our money if you get rid of the demons," they promised.
Diao was trying not to look too pleased. His mouth had returned to its usual sneer, but his eyes glittered with pleasure.
Instead of the comfortable house in which Ping had imagined they would spend the night, the villagers pushed them into a pigsty... [goes into long description of the pigsty]

So, anyone else see the huge problem with this scene?

What on earth were Ping and Danzi doing the whole time? Where was their reaction? The whole scene is action, action, action by Diao, disproportionately weak reaction, reaction, reaction from the villagers, and absolutely nothing from our protagonists. 

If you are anything like me, you'll want to shout at Ping and Danzi 'Do Something!', while also getting irritated at the author for being lazy. Because it is lazy writing. The author obviously had an end point she wanted to get to, and didn't take the time to properly plot out how to get there, or even consider whether her characters would get into such a situation.

Further, when we get to the point where so little reaction has happened that a new action cannot begin, a complete coincidence is brought in to make up the gap:

"Don't trust them because they look innocent." 
What exactly does Diao expect this accusation will accomplish? Oh, right, nothing, which is exactly what happens. So how do we move forward? Unrelated, coincidental action to kick start the scene again.
Hua [Ping's rat] chose that moment to reposition himself in the folds of Ping's gown.
"See for yourselves," said Diao. "The girl has creatures living in her gown."

This scene could easily have been remedied if the author had remembered that every action needs not only a reaction, but an equal and opposite reaction. To be of equal size, the reaction needs to be from the person with the most to gain/lose from the action. For us, it's Ping and Danzi, which is why it's so irritating they are mute and motionless the entire time. 

Not only is having no reactions unrealistic, it weakens the writing in two important ways. 

Conflict and Character:

As mentioned in the previous post (on creating a dynamic story) stories are moved forward by conflict. Actions that have no reaction are by definition 'conflictless'. Similarly, reactions which are just what the initiator expected are not 'opposite' reactions, and do not create conflict. Instead, they create dull reading, like listening to 'yes men' all the time. 

It is only when we have opposite reactions that we get into the meaty parts of writing. Opposite reactions open up opportunities. As seen in the scene above, with no reaction, no conflict, the story can't move forward. But when the characters respond in a way that the initiator doesn't expect, then there is another chance to react and keep everything moving forward. 

The other important consequence of good action and reaction is character portrayal. True character can only be shown by the choices the individual makes. Reaction is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this. When faced with someone accusing her of being a sorceress, how she responds tells us a lot about who she is. It through these reactions that we can escape 'telling' the audience about the main character and starting 'showing' them the reality.

There Is Always A Reaction:

Maybe when confronted by the dragon hunter our main character is so scared and uncertain that she doesn't make a move, but there is still a reaction. She goes from feeling happy and welcomed to suddenly fearful and petrified. Her limbs have gone from moving easily to being locked into place, or weak and about to collapse. These are all reactions, and they all tell us something about the main character.

If you do manage to write a piece of action to which there is no reaction you have two choices: either explain why there is no reaction (he looks around and realises everyone has left the room), or delete it because it's a waste of space. 


Action - reaction is the basis of all human experience. We expect it, so don't disappoint. 

When in doubt, use Newton's third law to guide you into conflict and character revelation, because it's the easiest way to make a great story. 

If you want to, why not try rewriting the scene above to see if you can make it more action packed. Can you give Ping different reactions which reveal her to be different types of person? Maybe in one she's aggressive and like a small terrier that never lets go, but in another she's wise and thoughtful, using knowledge of human nature to turn the villagers against Diao. It's all in how she responds.


  1. This is a great post about Action & Reaction. There's nothing like having a good example to demonstrate how it's done (or not done, in this case).

    If we have an agenda as writers ("this HAS to happen"), then the action/reaction may get overlooked. I'm going to make sure I watch out for this technique in my own writing!

    I might have a go at rewriting this scene with the reactions of Ping and Danzi. (I haven't read this book, though, so what I write will probably not fit the characters in the book.)

    1. Don't worry, the characters aren't consistent even within the book!

  2. Me again!

    I've been thinking over the action/reaction technique and I finally have the "why" to my question of why I don't enjoy some of the ebooks I bought recently. I thought it was because I was reading about characters with multiple personality disorders (their moods change almost with each line of dialogue! From sadness, to giggling, to chirping, to confusion, to teasing, etc. etc.) Now I see it's got everything to do with action/reaction. People's moods don't change that swiftly because events don't change that swiftly, although the level of intensity of the mood will escalate, depending on the circumstances. And it's their mood that is going to influence their reactions - how they speak, act, and what they say.

    On another note, I'm realising that just because an ebook has a good cover and an interesting blurb, and the ebook is (technically) published, the writing may not be all that great. It's annoying, but I suppose I can learn from how not to do it, just as much as I can from how to do it...

    1. I admit I was disappointed that this was a published and award winning book, so can hardly expect more from other ebooks.
      It really is a remarkable book these days that can escape my inner writing critic! Lord of The Rings succeeded though :D

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