Proactive and Reactive Scenes
By Randy Ingermanson
It sounds horribly old-fashioned to say this, but once a month, I go to a critique group with real, live writers.
These days, it seems that most writers communicate electronically. That’s all fine, but it’s just more fun to get together in person, so we do it.
One of the most common questions I ask after somebody reads a scene is, “What happened in this scene?”
Something needs to happen in every scene. Otherwise, there’s no reason for it to exist. Something needs to change. The lead character for the scene needs to be better off or worse off at the end of the scene than at the beginning.
There are two common patterns that scenes fall into—Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes. Of these, Proactive Scenes are more common, but all novelists need to know how to write both.
Proactive scenes are goal-oriented. The lead character for the scene is called the point-of-view character (POV character) and she wants to achieve some goal by the end of the scene.
But fiction feeds on conflict, so there is some reason your POV character can’t get what she wants. Maybe another character gets in the way. Maybe it’s something inanimate. Maybe this character is her own worst enemy, and she’s keeping herself from reaching her goal.
The bulk of the scene is going to be conflict. The POV character tries again and again to reach her goal. Again and again, she fails.
By the end of the scene, something happens. She either gets what she wants or she fails. But something must change.
If possible, you want your POV character worse off by the end of the scene. Why? Because that keeps your reader turning the pages. Happy characters are boring characters. Unhappy characters are interesting.
So we can summarize the structure of the Proactive Scene this way:
Sometimes, of course, you have to let your POV character get what she wanted. But there’s almost always a way to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” If you must give your POV character a win, find a way to turn it to ashes.
There’s a short scene at the end of the first chapter of The Hunger Games that illustrates this nicely.
Our POV character, Katniss Everdeen, is at the annual “reaping.” The names of one boy and one girl from her district will be drawn from a large glass bowl. Whoever is chosen has to go fight to the death in the arena with twenty-three other kids.
Katniss’s goal for this scene is simple. She doesn’t want her name drawn. But she knows that there are twenty slips with her name on them in that giant bowl. She’s at high risk.
The conflict in the scene is mostly internal. Nothing Katniss can do will change her fate. So the scene is done with a few fragments of action and several big chunks of backstory.
The tension builds to the end, when a name is drawn.
And it’s a win for Katniss. Her name is not drawn.
Instead, it’s her little sister, Primrose, who’s chosen.
That’s massively worse than if Katniss had been chosen herself. That’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Reactive scenes are decision-oriented.
Typically, something bad has just happened. The lead character spends a little time reeling from this setback.
Then she buckles down to decide what to do next.
And there just aren’t any good options.
The lead character is boxed in to a dilemma, and she has to choose the least-bad option.
That dilemma may take a long time or a short time to resolve, but the scene isn’t over until the lead character decides what to do next.
That decision will become the goal for the next Proactive Scene. It doesn’t have to be a smart decision. It might be a bad decision.
What’s important is that it’s plausibly the decision that the lead character would make. It fits in with her values, her skills, her intelligence level, and everything else the reader knows about her.
So the pattern of the Reactive Scene is simple:
At the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Hunger Games, Katniss feels like she did the day she fell out of a tree flat onto her back. She can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t think.
That lasts for a very short time. Then her mind is off and running. This is impossible! Her sister had only one slip of paper in the bowl. How could her name have been drawn?
And yet it’s happened. It’s reality, and in the next minute, her sister is going to be taken up on stage and then hauled off to die in the Hunger Games.
That’s one option.
But there’s another, and Katniss takes it without hesitation.
She volunteers to go in her sister’s place. Katniss will die in the Hunger Games to save her sister.
Of course, this is exactly what she doesn’t want to do. She spent the entire first chapter desperately wanting to not go to the Hunger Games.
But in the first chapter, she also spent time with her sister, and we saw that her sister is the only person in the world whom Katniss loves.
Volunteering is crazy. Her odds of survival are tiny.
It’s a bad, horrible, stupid decision.
Yet it’s completely plausible, because it’s better than letting her sister die.
Volunteering is the most natural thing in the world. Katniss can’t help herself from doing it, and the reader can’t help cheering when Katniss makes it.
There is more to be said about MRUs. Three suggestions for further reading:
Dwight Swain’s classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, chapter 4. Currently about $21 on Amazon.
My best-selling book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, chapter 9. Currently about $14 on Amazon.
My novel, The Fifth Man, which includes three appendices on the craft of fiction. Appendix C contains an analysis of the first few dozen scenes of the novel, explaining exactly how each one works.