Monday, July 13, 2009


When I write revision letters, I often tell my authors that I expect to see the three Rs in scenes. The three Rs encompass building character, which, as many of you know is my editorial Holy Grail.

When you plot a scene, you enrich the character’s life, bring it down, or plant them in a situation where the three Rs should happen, not only to fill the chapter, build word count and build character, but allow the reader to identify and create a bond with the hero or heroine.

So, in writing the three Rs, there are a few suggestions.

REACT: Most chapters start with a scenario of some type. The heroine is on a crashing plane, a raft in the ocean, her mother’s kitchen or in traffic dropping her child off at daycare. There are endless scenarios you can use, these are just a few.

At this point, the reader knows where the heroine happens to be. How does the heroine react to being there? Is she screaming and hanging on for dear life? Has she just yanked her hand out of the water before a shark cruises by? Did her Mom just make fluffy pancakes and bacon and the heroine is salivating? Or did a man in a sports car just cut her off in traffic? What did our heroine feel at this very point in time? Whatever she feels is a reaction. Build character here. Wring those feelings right out of our hapless heroine. Internal dialog and observations are good things! Conversation with another nearby can also build character.

RESPOND: Now that the plane has crashed, there’s a ship on the horizon, Mom has provided her with the pancakes and the man in the sports car screeches to a stop, jumps out and waves a bloody hand – our heroine has to respond. Her earlier thoughts are forgotten. Now she has to look for a way to survive in the jungle with pieces of plane all around, flag down the ship, decide to only eat half of Mom’s pancakes because she’s on a diet, and scrabble around under the driver’s seat to find that emergency fist aid kit she always keeps in the car. (Editorial intrusion – what do you mean you don’t keep a first aid kit in the car? Do so immediately. The editor has spoken!). Now she is poised to take action. Tools have been found, her former internal dialog is cut off and another crisis is staring her right in the face. She has to respond.

At this point, our heroine is coming to the aid of something or someone. She hasn’t actually done anything, but she is prepared or preparing to do so. Fill that page with her preparations. Dialog with the dog that survived the plane crash too, the kid who is in the raft with her, Mom’s discussion on her being too skinny, or the policeman running car to car looking for a first aid kit (see, I told you that a first aid kit is a necessary item in your car!), are excellent for showing the reader our heroine’s character. They get the sense that she will help, discuss, and even have a courageous sense of humor despite her surroundings or the people around her. These are heroine traits, and secretly our readers want to believe that they would respond exactly as our heroine is doing. Which leads us to Resolution.

RESOLUTION: The scene is now coming to a close. The heroine fashions a glider out of half a wing and parasails out of the jungle, thereby saving herself. Or she whips off her petticoats and flags down the ship. Mom realizes our heroine does need to drop a few pounds and takes back ½ pancake to eat herself. The heroine bandages the driver’s bloody hand, and he kisses her right there in traffic to the cheers of the stranded motorists. Our heroine had done something. She has taken action and resolved the plot issue that was introduced at the beginning of the scene. The responses portrayed and the preparations she took filled the chapter with character-building internal thoughts, open dialog and actions.

In closing this scene you can build character yet again by giving our heroine a sense of satisfaction at a job completed, a strength of purpose that uplifts her ego, and the knowledge that her actions, and hers alone, resolved the entire situation. If she did have help she needs to acknowledge it openly and not take all the credit. Giving credit where credit is due is also heroic.

So, in building character and plotting scenes remember the 3 Rs – React, Respond, Resolution.


Kathy Otten said...

I heard something similar to this at a recent conference workshop. But overwhelmed with so much info, I guess my brain lost the data somewhere. I've been bogged down today with a scene in my newest project, unable to figure out what was wrong. Thanks for jump starting my brain. Reaction is missing. Thanks.

Jamie West, Editor said...

You're welcome! :)

Donna B said...

That's kind of neat. I never thought of it that way, but the 3 R's are in each scene as well as the overall story. After all, aren't the 3 R's the complete plot?

Anonymous said...

Great perspective! And a helpful tool for dissecting a messy scene that just doesn't work. Thanks. :-)