Reaction Time

Plotting Tip #3: Give your characters time to react.

In our rush to keep pages turning, we can sometimes forget to allow space for character reaction. Yet this is necessary for our plot to make sense to readers.

For example, say Polly Protagonist is doing really well at her job. Her boss has praised her efforts. A promotion possibility has been mentioned. The big corner office has been refurnished, and the water cooler buzz is that Polly is probably going to land a directorship.

Buoyed up with excitement and anticipation, Polly goes out and celebrates early, signing a three-year lease on a very expensive car. She knows she shouldn’t do it, that she should wait until she really has her raise, but she can’t stop herself. Her friends are enthusiastic, and it looks like the world’s her oyster.

In the morning, she arrives to find a stranger sitting in the new office. Somebody from the west coast office has been brought in to take the position.

Polly walks into her first meeting of the day and gives her report.

Say what?

Let’s burn some skid marks on the page here. If you skip over the character’s reaction to a big setback, a disappointment, a threat, a plot twist, or even an unexpected maneuver from the antagonist–if you skip a response of some kind, even a numbed inability to register what’s happening, then you’ve cheated your reader.

Even worse, your story has stopped making sense.

If Polly doesn’t go numb, feel sick to her stomach, feel disappointed, angry, resentful, and even scared, then she’s not human. She’s not a character. She’s as lifelike as a piece of tissue paper, and just about as interesting. She’s been torpedoed by her boss, an individual that she’s trusted (until now), maybe even respected (until now).

All the long hours and extra effort that she’s put into her job have been for nothing. She’s sacrificed time, maybe even some relationships, for this opportunity. Now she sees that

a) her boss is a powerless nonentity

or

b) her boss deceived her and used her

Either way, she has to find a moment to process this and decide what she’s going to do about it. She may indeed go into her meeting and give her report, but inside she’ll be distracted. Her emotions will be churning. She’ll be looking at her coworkers with new eyes. She’ll be hearing what’s said with a different interpretation.

Even worse, at some point she has to realize that she’s obligated herself to a leased car she can’t afford because there isn’t going to be a promotion and raise.

In terms of plotting forward, Polly must now determine two courses of action.

The first is what will she do about work?

Is she going to confront her boss or keep her head down?

Is she going to quit her job or stay there and take the humiliation?

Is she going to accept the notion that she just isn’t good enough?

Is she going to figure out a way to sabotage the new guy AND her boss?

The answer depends on Polly’s character plus how you want the story to end. Which option will move her closer to the ending you envision?

Polly’s second problem can be resolved quickly in a paragraph of narrative summary. She called the auto dealership and reneged on her lease agreement.

Or, if you want to compound her troubles, then she won’t be able to break the lease.

Let’s say she’s an impulsive girl and opts to quit. She storms outside, fighting back angry tears, clutching her stapler and briefcase, and sees her new Lexus parked at the curb. A Lexus she can’t afford.

Pulling out her cell phone, she calls the dealership but maybe she bought the car over a long weekend and her three-day change-your-mind clause has expired. Now, thanks to her tendency to act before she thinks, she’s not only in debt over her head but also unemployed.

Her situation is worse. What will she do next?

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