Newton’s Third Law of Writing
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Take a look at this passage from a workshop submission. It’s set in the depths of the depression. Mary Ruth and her family have just moved into a poor neighborhood, and she’s out walking past a home where two vicious dogs are tied outside:
Mary Ruth slowed when she noticed a third rope tied around an old, leaning tree on the opposite side of the porch. She started to move faster, fearing a third dog was loose. She saw the rope around the tree move. Slowly, very slowly the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and took in slowly the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line. He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls.
The boy’s mouth twisted. He was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark. Mary Ruth said, “Hello.”
What’s the problem here? The descriptions are sharp, and the moment the boy is revealed is shocking. Why isn’t this working as well as it could? To make a scene work, you’ve got to establish a viewpoint character and create an evocative setting. Your characters need to move through it in convincing ways and speak dialogue that sounds authentic. You need to keep the pace moving, make sure the action advances the plot, and so forth. When you have this many balls in the air at once, it’s easy to drop one. The ball I often see rolling across the lawn is your characters’ reaction to events.
It’s an understandable mistake, especially for a beginning writer. The image of the mentally-disabled boy tied to the tree is shocking. I’m sure the writer felt the shock herself. It’s natural to assume that, if you feel shock, your viewpoint character doesn’t have to.
But when you drop your viewpoint character’s reactions, you make it harder for your readers to connect to the scene. Yes, readers feel the shock, but the shock happens outside the events on the page. It isn’t grounded in any of the characters. Take another look at the scene as I edited it. Bear in mind that I was using language appropriate to people in the mid-thirties with a limited education.
Slowly, very slowly, the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and slowly took in the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line.
Oh, good Lord, an idiot child.
He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls. His mouth twisted, like he was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark.
“Um . . . Hello?” Mary Ruth said.
The boy is still shocking, but the shock feels less distant because you’re now sharing it with Mary Ruth. That little bit of interior monologue, the hesitance in the dialogue, make the jolt feel more real.
It’s not just your viewpoint character who needs to react. If you’ve ever said, “I’m not yelling!” in the middle of a conversation, you know how easy it is to feel things you’re not aware of. You can show these feelings by how your other characters react to your viewpoint character.
Consider this passage from Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Might as Well be Dead. In it, a man named Paul Herold has just been convicted of murder. To find out if he’s a man Wolfe has been hired to find, Herold’s lawyer, Paul Freyer, arranges for Archie, Wolfe’s right hand man, to interview Herold in prison. The interview is a success in that Archie is able to confirm that Herold is the man they’re looking for. Then he tells Herold his father is trying to find him. Herold is speaking.
“Then promise me you won’t tell him. You look like a decent guy. If I’ve got to die for something I didn’t do, all right, I can’t do anything about that, but not this too. I know I’m not saying this right, I know I’m not myself, but if you only—“
I didn’t know why he stopped, because, listening to him, I didn’t hear the cop approaching from behind. There was a tap on my shoulder, and the cop’s voice.
“Promise me!” Paul Herold demanded.
“I can’t,” I told him and turned and walked out.
Freyer was waiting for me in the visitor’s room. I don’t carry a mirror, so I don’t know how my face looked when I joined him, but when we had left the building and were on the sidewalk, he asked, “It didn’t work?”
Note the complexity of the emotions Stout gets across here. Archie’s found the man they’re looking for, so, easy money for Wolfe and Archie’s done his job. Yet readers know Archie has a serious chivalrous streak and couldn’t be indifferent to someone who would literally rather die than have his identity revealed. By not giving a hint of how Archie felt when Herold made his plea, Stout generates tension that draws readers into the scene even further. Stout then delivers on the tension when Freyer takes one look at Archie and assumes he failed to identify the man when he’d actually succeeded. It’s another character’s reaction that puts the scene across.
So how do you learn to keep track of character reactions? Eventually it becomes second nature. You come to inhabit your viewpoint character well enough to follow his or her reactions and still keep all the other writing balls in the air. It’s one of the things you learn during your 10,000 hours of training.
Until then, when you revise, take a pass to focus only on your characters’ reactions. How do they respond to what happens, especially at critical moments? Can you use other characters’ reactions to bolster the scene? Even if everything else about your scene is solid – the boy tied to a tree was a strong scene – if your characters don’t react, your readers won’t, either.
So what memorable character reactions have you encountered? Are you tracking your own characters’ reactions? Incidentally, the offer still stands. If you have questions about your own writing, feel free to ask, either here or on the WU Facebook page.