Craft: 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

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:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Setback

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

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:

  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

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.

Further Reading

There is more to be said about MRUs. Two 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.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author (c) 2014 Randy Ingermanson.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

13 thoughts on “Craft: Proactive and Reactive Scenes”

  1. One thing you haven’t touched on in this article, Randy, is how the reactive and proactive scenes can overlap quite extensively on the way to the ultimate resolution of the story arc. By and large, I agree with all you’ve said, but at the same time there is the risk of falling into a sort of ‘building block’ approach to putting the story together. That approach is necessarily very linear, rather like ‘Problem 1 – Resolution 1 – problem 2 – Resolution 2 – etc. By intertwining problems and resolutions in a non-linear fashion (eg: Problem 1 – Problem 2 – Resolution 1 – Problem 3 – Resolution 4 – Problem 4 – Resolution 3 – etc.) we produce a story that is richer by having a somewhat higher degree of complexity than the plain vanilla linear story would have, even though the overall story is exactly the same. To take an example from the popular ‘zombie apocalypse’ genre, the story becomes a lot more exciting and page-turning when a character has to deal with a number of zombies at the same time rather than if he or she can just dispatch them one at a time. You can also consider the difference in excitement level between fight scenes in movies. It’s something of a cliche that in martial arts movies any number of villains surrounding the hero only seem to attack one at a time. Compare that with the fight scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and in the John Wick movies. Linear problems and resolutions versus overlapping problems and resolutions.

    1. I totally agree, Richard. Complexity is the kind of spice that enhances the flavor of any story. I think doing that well is probably one of the hardest things an author has to do. It’s much like putting puzzle pieces together in a way that the viewer of the puzzle (reader) can’t figure out where all the pieces go right away or be able to see the big picture because that takes out all the anticipation thus removing the page-turning effect.

      That is where raising questions and answering questions comes into play. As an editor I’ve read at least 100 manuscripts where the author didn’t understand how to weave those effectively into the story making the story rather bland and the characters either unbelievable or unlikeable.

  2. I’d say that the very last scene is the exception to the rule — it’s OK to let your character win at the end (BTW, the ending scene should always be proactive unless it’s actually an epilogue, no matter whether the outcome is good or bad, and in any case should never be reactive), but everywhere else, you must make your character suffer setbacks!

  3. I’ve just had it pointed out to me that the last scene in Gone With the Wind is reactive, so I take back part of my previous statement — it IS legitimate in some cases to make the last scene reactive (although this is very uncommon in practice!)

    1. I think it’s acceptable to make the last scene reactive if you’re going to write a sequel, but I do not think these kinds of reactive scenes are satisfying to the reader unless (as in Gone with the Wind) you know the character well enough to know she won’t take no for an answer. Rhett’s “I don’t give a damn,” was just like waving a red flag for Scarlett. Although, the writer of the sequel to that book never understood Scarlett’s complete, Irish character. Nor did she understand Rhett’s pride. So the whole sequel story was anti-climatical rather than the real characters’ growth. Sigh…

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post. It has made me want to go and read all my books again and make alterations.🙂. I will,definitely put your words to action in my further writing, though.

  5. It’s a great moment in cinema and literature when Katniss steps forward to compete in the Hunger Games. The audience is bent on her succeeding in her goal… even though they were bent on her achieving the opposite goal in the first chapter.
    Can you think of an equally compelling “reactive” moment in literature?

    1. I think when D’Arcy proposes to Elizabeth the first time in Pride and Prejudice was compellingly reactive. Even though he didn’t understand why he was compelled to ask her, he did. And she decided she just couldn’t marry him, even though she later admitted she was enraged at his inelegant proposal, not that she was adverse to him. This, for me, was a gut-wrenching scene.

  6. I think that authors tend to forget that life is rarely linear. Reactive scenes come as response to “problems,” as ways out, Unless we foolishly expect “plans” to work out. :-; The “best” way is to look at real life and see how it is. A reaction to a problem, proactive as we try to deal with it.

  7. I appreciate all your comments, as I’ve so much to learn. It’s time for me to go back to my “Pauline” and look at each each chapter to check for proactive and reactive scenes before I continue with the sequel. Thanks so much everyone.

  8. Usually my characters are their own worst enemies and that’s the crux of a lot of the conflict in my previous books (for the most part) but I’m ready to try something different — thank you for your insightful post!

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