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29.12.2011 00:31    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Writing  Writing Tips      Tags: fiction technique  tip  reaction  evan marshall  

In The Marshall Plan® novel writing system, there are two units of story action: the action section and the reaction section. The action section is where your story’s action takes place; one of your viewpoint characters seeks to achieve a short-term, or section goal that she thinks will take her closer to achieving her overall story goal.

 

In most cases, an action section ends with the viewpoint character making a decision as a result of what has happened in the section, and another action section follows, based on this decision.

 

But sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes the failure at the end of an action section is so devastating or momentous that something more is called for. That something more is the reaction section. The reaction section is a protracted account of the character’s reaction to the failure in the last section. You write a reaction section in three distinct phases:

  • the character’s emotional response to what has happened;
  • the character’s rational response to what has happened;
  • and the decision the character ultimately makes based on his rational response—that decision being the next action he will take.

Here’s an example from the novel Disclosure by Michael Crichton.

 

In an action section, Tom Sanders, the novel’s lead character, tries to convince Phil Blackburn, his company’s chief legal counsel, that Tom’s new boss Meredith Johnson sexually harassed him. But Meredith has already told Phil a conflicting story, saying that it was Tom who harassed her, and Phil is siding with Meredith. He says that, whatever really happened, it would be best for all parties if Tom accepted a transfer to another office. If Tom accepts the transfer, he forfeits a chance to make a lot of money if his current division is sold.

 

“Look, Tom. Let me review this with Garvin. Meanwhile, why don’t you go off and think this Austin offer over. Think about it carefully. Because no one wins in a pissing match. You may hurt Meredith, but you’ll hurt yourself much more. That’s my concern here, as your friend.”

 

“If you were my friend—” Sanders began.

 

“I am your friend,” Blackburn said. “Whether you know it at this moment, or not.” He stood up behind his desk. “You don’t need this splashed all over the papers. Your wife doesn’t need to hear about this, or your kids. You don’t need to be the gossip of Bainbridge for the rest of the summer. That isn’t going to do you any good at all.”

 

“I understand that, but—”

 

“But we have to face reality, Tom,” Blackburn said. “The company is faced with conflicting claims. What’s happened has happened. We have to go on from here. And all I’m saying is, I’d like to resolve this quickly. So think it over. Please. And get back to me.”

 

This section failure is too devastating to Tom to confine his response to the end of this section. A reaction section is called for so that we can see the stages of his response.

 

Tom’s next section—the reaction section—reads like this (text in brackets mine; some text omitted):

 

[EMOTIONAL PHASE:]

 

Look at the situation.

 

Sanders stood in Pioneer Park and leaned against a pillar, staring at the light drizzle. He was replaying the meeting with Blackburn.

 

Blackburn hadn’t even been willing to listen to Sanders’s version. He hadn’t let Sanders tell him. Blackburn already knew what had happened.

 

She’s a very sexy woman. It’s natural for a man to lose control.

 

That was what everyone at DigiCom would think. Every single person in the company would have that view of what had happened. Blackburn had said he found it difficult to believe that Sanders had been harassed. Others would find it difficult, too. . . .

 

[RATIONAL PHASE:]

 

Susan would never accept it. Her practice in Seattle was successful; she had spent many years building it. They had just finished remodeling the house. The kids liked it here. If Sanders even suggested a move, Susan would be suspicious. She’d want to know what was behind it. And sooner or later, she would find out. If he accepted the transfer, he would be confirming his guilt to his wife.

 

No matter how he thought about it, how he tried to put it together in his mind, Sanders could see no good outcome. He was being screwed. . . .

 

[DECISION PHASE:]

 

As Sanders stood in the rain, his sense of shock slowly faded. And with it, his sense of loyalty. He started to get angry.

 

He took out his phone and placed a call. . . .

 

The call Sanders is placing is to a pit bull of an attorney who specializes in workplace harassment cases.

 

Crichton’s text follows the action/reaction section structure so perfectly that one wonders if he used The Marshall Plan®! I wouldn’t be surprised. Many successful writers tell me privately that they use it but don’t talk about it. It’s their secret weapon.

 

Keep the reaction section mind, and use it when it’s warranted in your novel. You’ll increase your story’s dramatic impact while realistically showing the thought sequence that invariably follows a devastating blow.

 


About the Author

 

Evan Marshall is the president of The Evan Marshall Agency, a leading literary management firm that represents a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors.

 

A former book editor, Evan is the author of the bestselling writing guides The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing , The Marshall Plan® Workbook, and The Marshall Plan® for Getting Your Novel Published, as well as a book of popular psychology, The Eyes Have It (originally titled Eye Language).

 

Recently he and Martha Jewett released a software version of his Marshall Plan® novel-writing system, The Marshall Plan® for Novel Writing Template Generator.

 

Also an acclaimed mystery novelist, he is the author of the Hidden Manhattan mystery series, as well as the Jane Stuart and Winky mystery series.

 

An in-demand conference and keynote speaker, Evan has contributed articles on writing and publishing to Writer’s Digest and other national magazines.


 
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