It is time to continue on in the next phase of the 7 Steps of Story Structure with the Reaction Phase.
After tackling the Intro, we brought the reader on a journey from becoming familiar enough with the world to feel comfortable and beginning to forge a relationship with the main character. Then, with the Inciting Incident, we upended that carefully laid out world to leave the reader truly concerned for the welfare, and ability to survive, of protagonist.
Where do we go from here?
The Reaction Phase
Well, just like any life event, a big upheaval tends to leave us… lost. The same is true of your main character. The inciting incident must be so great that the main character cannot simply resume ordinary life, no matter if s/he hated it or loved it. There is no waking up in a familiar bed in known surroundings.
Instead, the protagonist is kicked out the door and the passage back is sealed behind them. This leaves your main character reeling.
And probably completely unable to survive, much less excel, on her/his own.
Yes, survival is in doubt. Do not launch the reader straight into just wondering if the character will be top of the heap. THAT is for much later. Instead, the new journey starts with feeling lost as much as the shock of what just happened. And that overwhelm results in cloudiness, which slows reactions just when the character needs to gather their wits to survive.
So how does your main character survive?
It should all come down to a bit of luck (but not too much or the reader will be rolling her eyes) and help. The help could come from friends who are along on the journey, newly discovered allies, or a grudgingly assigned guardian to an equally lost companion (like a baby dragon…). That all depends on your story.
The reaction phase is one of the longest parts of your novel, sometimes up to 20%. You can’t just fill it with near misses and lucky breaks though. Instead, you need to plan out a series of hurdles along with some lulls, each needing to be different as well as serving a purpose.
What purpose? Well, it is to help the character with her/his character arc!
Adding in the Character Arc
Yes, we are finally linking the character arc to the plot. This is when it all gets exciting!
Remember from previous discussions on character arc, a basic arc requires four things:
- Inner motivation: what the character truly needs
- Outer motivation: what the character wants
- Inner conflict: what stops the character from pursuing the inner motivation
- Outer conflict: what stops the character from pursuing the out motivation (and realizing that there is an inner motivation)
The Inciting Incident kicks off the character arc. The character is left scrambling to cling to some safety or a reason to survive; these, naturally, align with the outer motivation.
Where Hurdles and Lulls Fit In
Now, in the reaction phase, the main character tries to pursue the outer motivation and is thwarted at every attempt. Those missteps could be caused by being pursued, reacting badly to the current situation (because they don’t really want to be there doing that, they want to be back home in chapter 1), weather obstacles, angry gods, etc.
Each hurdle results in the character being pretty much smacked in the face and knocked on her ass. All the while, the main character also glimpses that there is so much more going on in the world around her. Those glimpses are at once the main book plot and theme, like good versus evil, and the main character’s inner motivation—something like you should be good even if that means giving up a cherished dream.
The two (the plot and inner motivation) are parallel, because the inner motivation is also tied to the book plot and climax. Otherwise, the stakes of the novel will not feel personal and readers will feel disconnected to the story and not believe in the stakes. All the action should have the reader, already invested in caring for the main character through the curiosity created during the mini-story, worried the character won’t make it out of the next scrape while wondering how s/he does.
Meanwhile, the lulls will deepen the character with emotional moments, so don’t spend too many on whining or the reader might just toss the book and character out of annoyance. The reader wants to see some understandable confusion but also some pluck and bravery! And don’t forget to keep building little hints that there is more going on, something underlying the surface story that the character sees. Curiosity is a great page turner from creating exciting chapter endings to seeking to understand the mysterious drive of the unfolding book plot.
Back to Our Example
Ok, that all sounds either like a complicated mess you will never hope to solve or like it makes the absolute most sense (until you sit down to try and create it). What does it all mean and look like?
Which brings us back to our goat girl!
Remember, instead of winning over the mage to take our young heroine in the place of her arch-rival, our goat girl has managed to get herself banished to some remote island school for those who cannot control their rebellious brand of magic. All she wanted, her outer motivation, was to win that spot in her favorite subject (and maybe show up her rival once and for all).
She doesn’t want to be sent away to a harsh place with difficult rules that she won’t know.
It is easy to come up with some obstacles she’ll find at a tightly run school full of boys and girls containing powerful magic that they aren’t supposed to use and who ended up there by hurting someone … think Azkaban for the young and powerfully gifted. Our innocent goat girl will be lucky to survive the day!
BUT … all should not be as it seems. This isn’t just about her surviving amidst the rebellious and rough teenagers who “greet” her arrival. There must be more to this story than that. Instead, what if this is a good versus evil theme where what seemed good (working with the arch mage) was really the evil path? What if her inner motivation is to not only be all she can but also to be more than she ever dared dream?
So, there will be the quiet teacher who stands in the shadows, watching the girl with patience and interest. The potential new friend, also a new arrival but with a few more days under his belt, who can show her the quick paths to escape the watchful eyes of teachers or the fists of frustrated students. And, of course, the wild beauty of the remote island that she wants to hate but that the boy already loves.
Away from the walls where magic is blocked, they find a few others who challenge themselves to learn what is forbidden to them now, discovering friends whose stories don’t fit with the ruthless, unruly, and unwanted kids they are told live in this place.
So what, really, is the truth of who they are and why they can’t use their magic?
That is a discovery for next time when we tackled the New Info/Dark Night of the Soul!
For more tips on plotting, check out our Plot Development Book! Learn not only how to plot, but how to create characters, align them with character arcs, and tie the character’s journey with your plot to create tension filled, character-driven fiction!