Friday, June 7, 2013

Are Your Actions and Reactions Logical?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

On Tuesday I talked about making sure that your fiction happens in order. But there's more to it than simply having the actions and reactions in the right order. The human brain has a method of processing information. It’s important to get this order right so that your narrative feels logical to the reader. So when you write, make sure that your actions and reactions follow the same logical progression that the human brain uses.

1. First comes the senses: what you see, feel, hear, smell, taste. What your character notices or observes. So, when you're describing something, things like pain, temperature of the room or outdoors, a siren, a bright light. These things should come first.

2. This is followed by reflexes of action or emotion. What the human body does without thinking in reaction to those first observations in number 1. These are reactions that are out of the character's control. So, shutting eyes against a bright light, flinching or wincing at a loud noise, being afraid. Things like that.

3. Thought comes next. Inner thoughts based on the observations in number 1 that will lead to a decision in number 4.

4. Finally, action or speech in reaction to what's happened.

Keep in mind, you don't always have to include all four of these elements in every sequence of action. People don't always think: I'm going to speak out loud now. But the elements you do include should always happen in order.

Here's a scene from my book Captives that's written in a logical sequence of events, for the most part.

       Shaylinn opened her eyes to a bright white ceiling. She must be in heaven, because in Old movies, heaven was always white and glowing like this. But Papa Eli had said there would be no mourning or pain in heaven, and the ache in Shaylinn’s chest hinted at recent pain.
       “Hello?” she called, her voice barely a croak.
       She lay on a stiff and narrow bed. When she tried to sit, she found her arms were bound to the bed. Her heart tumbled within her. “Help! Someone help me!” The words resulted in nothing but a break in the silence around her.
       She lifted her head in hopes of getting some sort of bearings. A tall cupboard hung on the wall on her right. Down past her feet, a door stood without a handle or knob. To her left, a glowing blue sheet of glass covered the wall. The surface seemed to ripple with low light.
       Her cheek itched, and she turned her head to scratch it with her shoulder. That was when she realized she was wearing a thin white dress. Who would take her clothes? What was going on? “Hello? Is someone there? Please, help me!”

The above scene includes seven full sequences of logical action. I highlighted them so you could see how they are broken down. First, Shaylinn opens her eyes to the white ceiling (1), thinks (3), then speaks (4). The ache in her chest comes out of order, which is a mistake. It should have come in number 1. She notices where she is (1) and tries to sit (4). Then she notices that she's tied down (1), she feels fear (2), and she calls out (4). When no one answers (1), she lifts her head (4). Here I made another out-of-order mistake with her inner thoughts "in hopes of getting some sort of bearings (3)." This really should have come before she sat up. If I could still edit this book, I would have changed that to: "In hopes of getting some sort of bearings (3), she lifted her head (4)."

Then she notices her surroundings (1). She feels an itch (1), and scratches it (4). Then finally, she notices her clothing (1), wonders how that happened (3), then speaks again (4).

All this to say, write your stories this way. Try to give the reader information in this order. It feels right and natural. A little mistake here and there won't be the end of the world, but if you can train yourself to do this, it will start to come naturally and you'll be making it easy for readers to follow your narrative. And that's a very good thing.

Any questions?

28 comments:

  1. This is something I have been really working on lately. Plus, I think all this goes under the whole idea that your reader will be surprised if the pain reminded the character of something if they didn't know it was there : )
    And, you are so right in that training yourself makes it much easier. I have already seen a difference.

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  2. I've never thought about this in much detail before, but I can see now its really important! Thanks Jill! I'll make sure to fix this in my edits :)

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  3. Makes sense. Also looks hard to watch for. :P Oh well. I shall try to pay attention more to this, especially while editing!

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    1. It's hard to watch for at first, but gets easier. Plus, it doesn't have to be perfect.

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  4. Great post as always Jill! I've got a quick question for you. I'm 12 years old and I'm very dedicated to writing. I write every day for at least an hour and I've not completed several novels. I'd love to go to a writers conference but I'm afraid that I'm too young. Do you have any advice for me?

    -Marylin

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    1. Gah! I meant I've NOW completed several novels. Sorry!

      -Marylin

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    2. I don't think you're too young. Will you parents consider taking you? If not, find some good books on editing (Self Editing for Fiction Writers is good. And the GTW one is good too) and rewrite your books. Pick your favorite and start with it. Then you need to find someone to read it. So, look for people you can trade manuscripts with. You could ask on the GTW FB page. Writers conferences are also good for getting feedback on your writing too.

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    3. Thanks so much!

      -Marylin

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  5. Hi! I know this isn't the right post to be asking this on, nut the other day you were talking about how we shouldn't write sentences like:

    As Kylie grabbed her coke off the counter, she crumpled it up and tossed it on the trash can before the doorbell rang.

    I was wondering if it would be okay to write sentences that use the word 'as'. I know that there are different ways to use the word but I wanted to know if the following example would be okay:

    Lucy launched the soccer ball across the field with a powerful kick as Coach Smith jotted down notes on a clipboard.

    I know that it is describing two different characters and the actions that they happen to be doing at the same time so I think it is allowed, but I just wanted to know for sure. Thanks in advance and God Bless!

    -Pippi (Yep that's really my name)

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    1. Hi, Pippi! You "can" do anything you want. It's not always a good idea, though. "As" is a perfectly fine word. And your second sentence is fine, but why? What do those two things have to do with each other that they need to be in the same sentence and shown as simultaneous action?

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    2. I see what you mean. Thanks!

      *Opens Word Document and types furiously*

      One of these day, my computer keys are just going to pop.

      -Pippi

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  6. I've never thought about this, really. I'm almost scared to go back and read the first chapter I just finished. I have a question that goes along with Pippi's question, are sentences with "as" okay from time to time or should they always be avoided? If it didn't have a purpose, it would be a word, right?

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    1. Okay. I meant to put a period after "Pippi's question." I just hit the wrong button on my phone. I'm not illiterate. Lol.

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    2. There is nothing wrong with the word "as." Sometimes it's the word you need. But many new authors abuse the word and write weak sentences with it. You need to train yourselves to recognize when you're trying to do too much with any sentence. Just double check them and make sure they're strong sentences and couldn't be reworded in a better way.

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  7. Ah. I've never really thought about this. I think I do this generally, but it's a hard concept to nail down. I think it's easier because I write in first-person, so I write as I would react. Is it hard in third?

    Thanks for the post, Jill!

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    1. You're welcome, Katia. I think it can be harder in first, because telling can be easier in first. For me, anyway...

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  8. I've never actually considered this...I'll probably end up going through my writing at some point to check this, but right now I'm just focusing on writing. I'll keep this in mind, though, thanks!

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  9. Just like everyone else, I was too busy focusing on the words that this has never come into my mind. Thank you for posting this, I enjoyed reading. Keep doing what you're doing x

    Kelsey ~ thenoisythinker

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  10. Hi! Wonderful post! I really should get back to my WIP (yep, I've finally figured out the terminology!) I just have a question. Dont u often do contests? Why haven't I seen any in a while?

    -Andromeda

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    1. This is completely off topic, but love the name :)

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    2. Yes, our last contest was in late March. Or early April. Can't remember which. We're hoping to have another one soon :)

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  11. Wow! This post is so good! I've never thought about sequence of events in that way! This really helped and I will definitely have to keep an eye out for this in my writing. Thanks, Jill!

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  12. When I took my theatre classes, we had to learn this for acting. I love when I can mix my hobbies. :)

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    1. Well, Writing is more than a hobby. But I mixed it with Theatre.

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