Action and Reaction: The Building Blocks of Story Structure

Today on my blog, fabulous writing teacher Katie Weiland is sharing some thoughts about how to structure our novels. Many writers, especially pantsers, tend to break out in hives at the mere mention of the word STRUCTURE.

But I personally find that having structure for my novel is incredibly helpful in bringing a cohesiveness and purpose to my stories. And I eat up any advice that will help me improve my story-structure.

I hope you'll find Katie's advice as insightful to you as it was to me.

Here are just a few of Katie's thoughts:


by K.M. Weiland, @KMWeiland

Sometimes writers get a little freaked out by the idea of story structure. Too complicated, too confining, too vague. This is ironic, since structure, when properly understood, actually simplifies the writing process, frees our creativity, and offers a specific checklist of “story must-haves.” Today, I want to break structure down to its simplest integers: action and reaction.

What Is Plot?

We often hear the verbs “structuring” and “plotting” used interchangeably. This in no way negates the importance of character (just the opposite: character arc is interwoven into solid story structure), but it is a rather interesting perspective. We use structure to build a plot solid enough to support our story.

But what is plot?

When we get right down to it, plot is nothing more or less than characters acting and then reacting. One character does something (usually something that creates conflict, one way or another). Another character does something else in response—and on and on.

Action and Reaction on the Story Level

If we look at story as a whole, we can see how action and reaction drive the entire plot, like two pistons pumping in harmony. Strong stories divide themselves into two distinct halves. In the first half of the book, the main character will be in reaction mode for the most part.

She starts out in her normal world, which is often a place of complacency in many respects. Then something dramatic occurs that rattles her world off balance. From that point on, until roundabout the middle of the book, she’s in reaction mode. She’s trying desperately to adapt to her unexpected circumstances—or maybe even just survive. She’s not in charge of the story; the story’s in charge of her.

But that all starts to change in the second half of the book. After the dramatic turning point that occurs near the Midpoint, the character begins to move out of reaction phase and into action. She begins to come into her own power, make her own decisions, and take the fight to the antagonistic force in ways she wouldn’t have dreamt of earlier.

Action and Reaction on the Scene Level

On a scene level, the pairing of action and reaction becomes even more integral. The scene itself can be broken down into two definitive parts: scene (in which the character enacts a goal, is confronted by conflict, and meets with disaster of some kind) and sequel (in which the character reacts to the disaster, ponders her dilemma, then makes the decision that will lead her to her next goal).

The first half—the scene—is all about action. The character moves forward, tries to get something done, and meets resistance. The second half—the sequel—is all about reaction. The character takes stock of what’s just happened to her and tries to figure out her next move.

Action and Reaction on the Sentence Level

This whole pairing of action and reaction goes down even one level deeper. By the time we reach the level of paragraph and sentence, we really get the opportunity to see how inseparable action and reaction are.

Essentially, action and reaction are cause and effect. As such, we have to make sure they’re ordered properly throughout our stories—and especially on the sentence level. When we tell readers the effect before the cause (the reaction before the action), we’re subtly undermining their suspension of disbelief. We’re failing to let their participation in the story evolve chronologically.

Consider the following examples:

I gasped when I saw John on my step after opening the door.

When I opened the door and found John standing on my step, I gasped.

Which makes more sense? Which properly indicates the cause and effect by creating a chronological relationship between action and reaction?

An understanding of proper story structure has much to offer beyond just the pistons of action and reaction (as I discuss in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story). But if we can start by mastering these two foundational building blocks, we’ll be that much closer to creating a solid story.


K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring YourNovel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

For more of Katie's awesome writing advice, check out her new book that just released: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story (eBook only $2.99)

QUESTION: How much thought do YOU put into your story's structure? Do you find structure freeing or stifling to your creative process?

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