It seems a silly thing, the idea that we must be reminded of something we learn at a young age over and over again until we’re old and (supposedly) wise. Newton’s third law lays out the concept I speak of in simple terms — and it’s a law we’re taught to memorize before we’ve reached adulthood: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
But how true is Newton’s proclamation? In life, I mean. Does every decision and the consequential choice to act on it result in an opposite reaction? I think the better way to think of this is as Stephen Dobyns puts it, blankly and simply: “Actions have consequences.”
Every decision you made yesterday led you, in some ways, to this very moment. Similarly, every decision you made last year trickled into 2021. It’s not exact; your plans to work Monday-Friday might not be the result of your dinner choice Sunday night. But what if the skeptical sushi you chose to eat knotted in your stomach during the early Monday morning hours? What if you became violently ill? What if the pain was so bad you wound up in the emergency room, unable to move, much less work, and you had to call out sick?
Life is but a series of what-ifs, and we, as humans, are constantly answering them with the choices we make. Your decision to drive to Starbucks instead of brewing your own coffee may seem inconsequential, but that choice sparks a sort of butterfly effect that not only impacts you but every person you pass or touch. “What if I get Starbucks?” It seems such a harmless question, and yet the choices you make — not to mention the choices, the actions, of others — will change the course of your day, your life.
Actions have consequences. Always. They’re not always negative; quite the contrary, in fact. Many actions lead to positive outcomes. But without initiating the action, without making the choice in the first place, that specific outcome would be impossible.
What if? What if I won the lottery? What if I surprised my wife with flowers? What if I cleaned the kitchen? What if I worked on that project I’ve been putting off? What if I called that friend back? What if I didn’t? What if I stayed home instead of going to work? What if I didn’t lock my doors at night? What if I accidentally cut my arm and didn’t clean the wound? What if it wasn’t an accident? What if I crossed the median on that trip to Starbucks? What if I didn’t cross back over?
You see? Actions. Consequences. Choices. What-ifs.
In writing, authors must remember this as they consider each and every word. In your stories, you are God. You are the decider and the true power, and you determine the course of the story. This means you get to choose which actions take place.
But with these choices comes responsibility. Call me Uncle Ben if you wish, but you can’t wield this power without first understanding in it. To do this, all authors are obligated to tell their readers the truth.
The Truth: Making Your What-Ifs Real
It does not matter if the primary what-if in play is as simple as, “What if I was rich?” or as complicated as, “What if I suddenly learned to fly and cast spells and summon demons and angels from heaven and hell?” Your job as an author remains the same. You have one question you must ask yourself, and the rest will follow: how do I make this scenario real? How do I convince my reader that this is true?
I’m not saying you must make people believe magic is real. Rather, they must believe that magic in your story is real, and you can’t do that without tying threads of truth to the rope you’re using to string them along. And the first truth, the most important truth, you must recognize is the consequences of your characters’ actions.
Set-ups and Payoffs vs. Actions and Reactions
Every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word must have meaning. I don’t say that in the way you may think. Some authors believe every scene in your story must either be a set-up or payoff in some sort of way.
I disagree, at least partly. There are important scenes in several novels that do not serve to set up a particular sequence or payoff a prior sequence. Rather, many scenes are included for the purposes of characterization, world-building, and even to take a break from what may otherwise seem like a breathless story. However, these scenes still have some sort of action happening in them, even if it’s minor. There is no scenario in real life where absolutely nothing at all happens.
Think of it this way: if you sit in your room and do literally nothing, you — at the very least — are choosing not to do something else. Your characters need to understand this. Thoughts will flow in the silence. Even if you’re sleeping, you might dream, and if you don’t, at least you will feel relatively restored when you wake. That is a form of reaction.
Whatever your character is or is not doing, you need to realize that something is happening. Time does not simply standstill. To some, the action/reaction cycle may be a version of the set-up/payoff requirement. To that point, I digress.
The Action-Reaction Cycle
To help authors better implement these “reactions” in believable ways, you may find it useful to consider charting your character’s decisions in a given story with the action-reaction cycle. The cycle works as a standard process every character must, in some way, follow as they contemplate and act upon their decisions. The cycle works off the idea there is a certain amount of processing that takes place between a character’s action and subsequent reaction, and nailing that emotional processing is the key you’re looking for as you develop characters.
- Action: This is not an opinion. This is a fact. This is, regardless of the character’s intentions, the thing he or she does.
- Reaction: This is how the character, or other characters, responds to the action. This can be a gut-reaction (emotional, body-like response; i.e. “the hairs on her arm stood straight.”), instinctive (a more deliberate body-centric action than gut-reactions; i.e. “he jumped as the sound of the horn shocked the evening air.”), or rational (more of the mind than of the body, where a character can express themselves through thought; i.e. “good grief, not again.”).
The action-reaction cycle is important to consider not only when characters make life-altering decisions, but in other, seemingly less-important moments. These may include day-to-day conversations, chores, driving, etc.
To get a better sense of how to do this, try being present when experiencing these situations in your own life. How are you feeling when speaking on the phone with a family member? What emotions go through your head when you’re sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office? When a jarring sound jumps at you from nowhere, how do you react? Everything you do carries emotion. Even when you feel content or neutral, that’s still an emotion. You need to make your readers see that in your characters.
Remember: your characters’ actions and reactions will only be believable if they are rooted in truth. Whose truth can you possibly hope to understand more than your own?