Monday, September 26, 2011

Be My Guest: Linda Yezak

Thank you, Linda, for guest posting today on the Blood Red Pencil.

The Laws of Physics–er, Writing
by Linda Yezak

He eyed her from head to toe.

She hit him.

He smirked.

She thought he called her a name.

Sounds like a scene from a novel, doesn't it? In truth, these lines are derived from different novels in which the author presented an unanswered action.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

This, the third of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of physics, should be the first law of writing. Whenever a character does something, there should be some sort of reaction.

The examples are from novels I've read where the author left me hanging after an action was portrayed. The first one, especially, yanked me out of the story: "He eyed her from head to toe." Since we were in her POV, we should've seen her reaction (even if we weren't in her POV). Believe me, a woman reacts to being scoped, and how this one reacted could've solidified her characterization. The author missed an opportunity, and the editor let him get away with it.

The next one, "She hit him," surprised me because she hit him hard in the legs with a metal object. At the very least, he should've said "ouch." He should've jumped up and down, holding one injured shin, then the other. He should've exclaimed something--anything--that would indicate pain. Should have, but didn't.

Authors should pay attention to what they're writing. They should visualize the scene and the natural reactions their characters should have to the stimulus presented–in a natural sequence. I emphasize the sequence, because I've also seen something similar to this:

She whacked him on the back with the board she toted. She didn't mean to, she just wasn't paying attention. When would she ever learn? She was so careless, such a klutz. Even her mother said so. What would her mother say if she saw her today? Nothing good, no doubt.

"Ouch," he said.

Oversimplified of course, but it happens when writers aren't paying attention to what they put on the page. That an author wouldn't realize what she's writing may seem odd, but if she's anxious about her next point or presenting a vital character quirk or whatever goal is on her mind, she's blinded to what she has written. And if the author is the type to deliver an unedited first draft to her editor, then it becomes the editor’s responsibility to bring these deficiencies to her attention.

Most writing rules can be broken by those who know how to artfully manipulate them, but this Law of Physics (writing) should be sacrosanct–every action has a reaction.

Two-time ACFW Genesis finalist Linda Yezak lives with her husband and three cats in the great state of Texas, where tall tales out-number the cattle and exaggeration is an art form. Aside from being a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, she is also a member of Women Writing the West and The Christian PEN. A popular speaker in the ArkLaTexOK area, she is a freelance editor, a content editor for Port Yonder Press, and has served as a judge in several nationwide writing contests. Her novel, Give the Lady a Ride, a western romantic comedy and 2008 Genesis finalist, debuted in March of 2011.

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  1. Thanks for the great reminder of how important it is to remember the reaction. So often we overlook that.

  2. You're welcome, Maryann. I hope this post proves helpful!

  3. Thanks for your guest post, Linda! I especially like that you called the lack of reaction a "missed opportunity." So true! The writer may think the reaction is too obvious to devote space to--if you whack a character on the shins, he'll no doubt register pain, so why spend word count on it, right? But by skimming over the presumed reaction the writer might have missed out on a really neat moment for a surprising reaction. What if she whacked him on the shins--and he kissed her? That might be a scene worth some more exploration!

  4. Exactly, Kathryn. Characterization opportunities come in small packages and are scattered throughout the story. Writers ought to take advantage of them. Adding a twist, as you suggested, is the best way to do that.

  5. Very true. It's important to follow up with a reaction to the action, instead of leaving the reader wondering. Exceptions might be if you're using that action for emphasis, or maybe if the author already has made it clear what the reaction will be.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. "Exceptions might be if you're using that action for emphasis, or maybe if the author already has made it clear what the reaction will be."

    I agree to a certain extent, especially if the author made the intent clear so it doesn't look like an oversight or leave the reader hanging.

    Thanks for your comment, Morgan.

  7. Such an important reminder, especially as I am in the midst of a complete and utter rewrite.... Thanks, Linda!

  8. Nona--"complete and utter rewrite"? That sounds ominous. Shudder!

  9. Excellent points, Linda! Another related writing mishap I often see in editing fiction is when the writer writes the reaction before the action, the effect before the cause, as in "She yelled when she dropped the pot on her toe." Give the action, then the reaction, the cause, then the effect. This is especially important in longer sentences, where the reader has to read on to find out what caused it, then skip back to reread the reaction. Subconsciously (or consciously) annoying to the reader.
    Thanks again for a great post! Actions cry out for reactions, and the reactions enrich the scene.

  10. Oh, no kidding, Jodie! Reversing the action and reaction is a common mistake, and one I was guilty of early in my writing career. Okay, one of *many* I was guilty of. (Confession time!)

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  12. That reminds me of something I want to write about. The reaction should be as different as the characters, and it's a way to distinguish them - to give them unique voice. I'm reminded of a book I recently read in which the heroine reacted with a certain swear word, and later in the book, the villain used the same swear word, which was unusual enough to be pretty unbelievable. These two characters had never met, so I'm guessing the author used that expression and plopped it on two characters without really considering if either would say that. Pulled me right out of the story though. :D Whoever said this writing stuff was easy? Not me. Thanks for visiting us, Linda. I hope we can tempt you into stopping by again.

  13. "The reaction should be as different as the characters, and it's a way to distinguish them - to give them unique voice."

    Yes, ma'am! I agree 100%.

    I've enjoyed my visit to your site. Thank you all for having me, and thanks to Heidi for inviting me.

  14. Linda, thank you for being my guest poster this week! Excellent article!

  15. A good reminder. We would react to those things if they happened to us, so it's important to remember to have our characters react to them when we're writing.


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