Scene Structure: Proactive and Reactive

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Unless you’re working on microfiction, flash fiction, or very short stories, your plots will almost always require you to write multiple scenes. When I say ‘scene’, I’m talking about a specific segment of a larger story that contains its own miniature story arc. Scenes can flow one into the other or be separated with a scene break. Usually, a change of time or setting has occurred between scenes, but not always. Sometimes a scene is synonymous with a chapter. Other times, one chapter might include multiple scenes.

The average novel is composed of dozens or even hundreds of scenes, and though there are no hard rules as to how you organize and structure them, the most classic pattern in fiction involves alternating between proactive scenes and reactive scenes.

Scene, Sequel, Scene

The common name for this pattern is ‘scene, sequel, scene’. Basically, you write a segment where conflict occurs (the scene) and follow it with a segment about the character’s reaction to that conflict (the sequel). Then you repeat for the whole book, gradually building tension until the ultimate climax.

This doesn’t mean every alternating chapter has to switch back and forth between exciting action and navel-gazing reaction—that would be overkill and get boring fast—but it does mean that your story has moments built in which give both the characters and readers a minute to catch their breath and reflect on what has happened so far and what might come next.

Proactive

Goal. Conflict. Setback. Those are the terms you’ll hear when studying how to craft a proactive scene. Something important has to happen, usually something that forces the character to make a decision or perform an action. They reach for a goal, run into conflict, or suffer a setback. These can come in any shape, form, or intensity.

Maybe your protagonist seeks to finally defeat the Dark Lord. Maybe they get a flat tire on the way to an important meeting. Maybe they go to the kitchen to grab an ice cream sandwich but discover that their spouse ate the last one. These examples might have very different stakes, but each could be written as an equally proactive scene.

As has been discussed in other articles, you want your protagonist to be a proactive character who propels the plot forward. Doing this will also help ensure that you have proactive scenes, so make sure your main character is someone with active desires and goals.

Reactive

Reaction. Dilemma. Decision. In a reactive scene, something big has occurred and now the characters have to face it. You can have your character experience the consequences of their earlier decisions, discuss the situation with other characters, or ponder it in their own head.

You do have to be careful here. Navel-gazing, wherein the POV’s inner monologue is revealed, can easily tip into ‘whiny protagonist’ and turn off a lot of readers.

This is one place where ‘show don’t tell’ is a vital tool.

Is your character furious about what happened? Don’t just say, “he/she was furious”. Show them red in the face, punching a hole in the wall.

“I mean, how many ice cream sandwiches can one person eat, anyway? There were a dozen in the freezer this morning! A dozen, I say!”

And don’t let yourself be limited by the term ‘reactive’. It’s not always about a character’s feelings or reflecting on what has happened. It can be about setting up what happens next.

Maybe a character is killed (scene). Next, that character’s friend reacts to their death (sequel), but instead of simply responding with sadness, they immediately feel an urge for revenge. That would be a ‘sequel’ scene that allows for reaction while also maintaining tension and pushing the story forward.

You never want to release all the tension built up so far, so be cautious of lingering too long in reaction mode.

Pacing in Different Genres

In some writing, such as a thriller novel, the goal might be to keep the reader on the edge of their seat from start to finish, hoping they’ll read the whole thing in one sitting. With these novels, you might think that every scene should be proactive, but even here, readers usually want some moments of calm and reflection. Thriller authors will often hide little reactive segments in the middle of larger scenes or chapters. They’ll make sure to bookend these moments with intensity, usually relying on short, snappy chapters and lots of cliffhangers to keep the reader flipping pages.

If you’re writing in a genre like epic fantasy, however, and your manuscript spills across 500+ pages, know that readers will need breaks throughout the book. These longer novels not only rely heavily on the ‘scene, sequel, scene’ format, but are often structured as a collection of short novels stacked together. This structure can keep the reader from being overwhelmed by the complexity of the interwoven plot threads.

Shifting Viewpoints

If you’re writing a story with multiple POV characters, you might wonder how the ‘scene, sequel, scene’ technique will work for you. Do you have to show both a proactive and reactive scene for one POV character before moving on to a new one? What happens if you show an active scene from one POV and then jump to a reactive scene from another?

The good news is, you can experiment and structure it however feels natural.

Let’s say you’re writing about an epic space battle. The battle occurs over half a dozen scenes combined into three chapters. You want to write from different POVs from characters on each side of the conflict.

In a lengthy sequence like that, you’ll want to intersperse the exhilarating action with moments of other emotions. Characters might feel fear, trepidation, conflicted loyalties, joy, etc. Go ahead and include these reactive moments. (And maybe borrow from the thriller author’s box of tricks and bookend your chapters with excitement and cliffhangers.)

But to whom do you give those reactive moments?

Maybe you start with a proactive scene from the POV of a General optimistically planning the battle. Then you jump to a fighter pilot actively experiencing the violence. Next, you include a reactive scene from the General's POV reacting to how the battle plans are going awry.

Experiment. Try it different ways while focusing on hitting your emotional beats.

When it comes to the start-to-finish, full-book character arcs, you’ll want to make sure every major character is fleshed out and undergoes change, but when you’re structuring the plot page-to-page, the most important thing is the reader’s experience.

Don’t feel forced to interrupt the flow of the story to give every character a moment to reflect. Constantly be propelling the plot forward. You can always add in a reactive scene for one of the characters later on in the story.

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Dave Kavanaugh

Dave likes to write about ancient aliens, newborn gods, and really big swords. He is the author of the serial "Age of Omicron" and lots of speculative short fiction. To learn more, head over to www.davekavanaugh.com.

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