The Order of Action and Reaction

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 3/12/2008

One of the things to consider in writing is the action/reaction sequence. There are two ways to write this sequence. We can place the action first, The bat struck the ball and the ball flew over the fence. or we can place the reaction first, The ball flew over the fence, after the bat struck the ball. Given that we have two possibilities, we want to know when we should use each.

Brandilyn Collins makes it simple for us, “write the action before the reaction.” (see her blog). I would like to suggest that this answer is too simple. There are many reasons why we might want to give careful consideration to the order of the action/reaction sequence.

A Sequence of Events

Brandilyn’s argument for always placing the action before the reaction is that it follows the natural order of things. In the natural order, the bat has to strike the ball before the ball will fly over the fence. She describes a situation in which the reader is trying to understand the scene. Placing the events in order will help the reader to see that one thing leads to the next thing to the next. I agree with her that it is easier to read a list that is in order. For that reason, I would say that, all else being equal, it may be better to place the action before the reaction.

The Reader’s Expectations

When we write, one of the things we play with is the reader’s expectations. For example, you might write Samantha went to the store to buy apples, pears and fuzzy dice. We give the reader a short list of similar things so that the dissimilar thing stands out from the list. It wouldn’t be the same if we had said, Samantha went to the store to buy fuzzy dice, apples and pears. The order of the action/reaction sequence can also influence the reader’s expectations.

Consider the sentence The window cracked, when Thomas hit it with his fist versus Thomas hit the window with his fist and it cracked. In the first sentence, we has a slight element of surprise. The reader isn’t expecting the window to crack. In the second, the reader is thinking of course it might crack if he hits it with his fist. Which is better? That depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want the reader to be surprised then you would want to place the cracked window first. If you want the reader to be prepared, for the window to crack, then show the action first.

Toward More Elegant Writing

The Song of Solomon is one of the most elegantly written love stories of all time. It begins, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine. The reaction, the desire for a kiss, comes before the action or cause, thy love is better than wine. How would it read if we turned it around? Because thy love is better than wine, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. It means the same thing, but just isn’t the same. When we put the kiss first it makes people sit up and take notice. As soon as they see that first phrase, they know they’re in for something good.

We want our writing to be elegant. We want our writing to grab people’s attention. The choices we make in order can have a major impact on that the elegance of our writing. Notice that I say the choices. Just after the reverse order in Song of Solomon we see Because of the savor of thy good ointments, they name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the virgins love thee. In this case, the action comes first. If we reverse the verse we have, The virgins love thee, because thy name is as ointment poured forth, because of the savor of thy good ointments. In this case, the original arrangement is the only one that works well.

Better Clarity and Support

Many words have many different meanings. If you see the word pucker on a page, what does it mean? You might think of a person puckering her lips for a kiss, or fabric that is puckered. If we look at the sentence, She puckered her lips, we may think of one thing, but if we add to it and say, Biting into the sour lemon, she puckered her lips, the reader’s sensory reaction to the sour lemon clarifies and gives support to the ambiguous word pucker.

Another ambiguous word is mousse. It could mean a foamy hair product or light airy food. If we say when she put the mousse in her mouth, she gagged, we have the idea that this is the hair product, not the food. If we say when she put the mousse in her mouth, her mouth watered then it appears to be the food. We are relying on the reaction to tell the reader how to respond to the mousse. Unfortunately, the reader spends most of the sentence in an ambiguous state and by the time he figures it out, the sentence is over. If we turn these sentences around we have, she gagged when she put the mousse in her mouth and her mouth watered when she put the mousse in her mouth. The action is clear and it has the support it needs for the reader to understand what the writer means, as she is reading the statement. In addition, as soon as the reader sees “her mouth watered” the reader’s mouth will probably water a little and by the time she reaches the mousse, she be thinking about how good it must taste.

Do What Works

As with most things in writing, the choice of which order to use comes down to what seems to work best in context of everything else. Even with the sentences I gave as an example, if they had other sentences around them I might think they would sound better with their order swapped. If a sentence doesn’t seem as elegant as it should be, maybe the order is wrong. If a sentence doesn’t pack the punch that it should, the order could be wrong. Changing the order won’t solve every problem and there are times when the difference in order doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, but using order effectively can produce richer writing.