4 Steps to an Engaging Reaction Scene

Your character’s desperate attempts to achieve their goal have failed, now what? How do you move on from this disaster?

Most proactive scenes are followed by a reactive scene. Your character was hit by a major setback, and they need time to recover, regroup, and form a new goal. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, these scenes can become extremely slow and bogged down with self-pity. Follow these four steps to keep that from happening.

Step 1: Show the Character’s Gut Reaction

When you lose something important to you, you react with raw emotion, reeling from the blow. Let your character hurt, and give your readers an opportunity to feel their pain. Remember to show their emotions here rather than just telling the reader that they were sad or angry. You may also need to show a passage of time.

As a general rule, don’t let this step take longer than a quarter of the scene.

Step 2: Present the Dilemma

As your character calms down, the next natural step is for their brain to kick in. They have a serious problem, and no good options to solve it. This is the meat of the scene where your character sorts through possible courses of action and your reader worries about the outcome.

Step 3: Make a Decision

Your character has mulled over all the options, and now she needs to choose to least bad one. (There shouldn’t be a “good” option if you can help it because that will be too easy.) The decision she makes becomes her goal for the next proactive scene. The action-reaction sequence this creates will keep your book rolling forward.

Sometimes a decision will be made for a character by another character or an outside event, but don’t let this happen too often or your character will start to seem weak and passive.

Step 4: Trim Your Reactive Scenes

How long you spend on your reaction scene depends on your genre. In a thriller (e.g. Deceived by James Scott Bell), the reactive scene might be only a page or less, whereas in women’s fiction (e.g. Leaving by Karen Kingsbury), reactive scenes might outweigh proactive scenes for space. The trend in modern fiction is to prefer proactive scenes over reactive scenes, but if your genre demands longer reactive scenes, be sure to write tight. Trim them as much as possible.

What writers do you think are masters of the reactive scene?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


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