Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reversible and Irreversible Actions

Sit in a half-lotus position and close your eyes. Imagine your characters in their current states in the beginning of your scene, whatever scene you happen to be working on. Imagine where your characters are on their journey, both physically and mentally. Inhale. Exhale.

When thinking about our characters' actions, we need to understand the concept of reversible versus irreversible actions.

Reversible actions are those things that a character does in a scene that are not important enough to transport them to a different state by the end of a scene. For example, suppose your character, Stella, is on a journey to climb the Matterhorn. She's been at it for three days, and on the fourth day she drops her pack ten feet down and has to back track to get it. She does so, and a moment later, she is back where she started and ready to start her climb again. This little blip on her way is probably not enough to make or break her will. At best it was an inconvenience that is probably forgotten by the next page if not sooner. The action that she did, dropping her pack, was reversible, and she is back on course again.

In an irreversible action, the character is transported to a different state after the action has taken place. Stella is climbing the Matterhorn. On the fourth day, she drops her pack in a deep crevice. All of her food is now out of reach. Her climbing partner, Rodrigo, is looking pretty tasty. Here, we see that the action of her dropping the pack has changed her state. The stakes are higher. She's going to go hungry. She's closer to eating Rodrigo. The plot has progressed toward the conclusion of whether or not Stella makes it to the top (and back down).

Keep in mind that the irreversible action can be psychological. Your character can make a decision. Your character can come to a realization. Both of those things are valid and irreversible. Remember the first time you encountered heartbreak? Or death? Doesn't that change your life in an irreversible way? If Stella only dropped her pack ten feet and that somehow convinced her that she was not going to make the journey after all, then that act could be considered irreversible -- although, technically, I guess it's the realization that is the irreversible act, not the dropping of the pack.

In general, while reversible actions may be true to life, if you want to write a focused story where the action is continually progressing toward the climax of your story, every scene should have at least one irreversible action. Every scene should end with your character being in a different state than they were in at the start of the scene. If they only do reversible actions -- breaking up with their lover only to make up with them again -- they are not climbing that unavoidable slope up to the climax of your story. If a scene only has a character doing a reversible action, chances are, that scene can be cut.


  1. I would add a caveat that you could also have a scene with a suitable level of tension building up to an irreversible action, but not the action itself. In part it depends on your definition of scene, specifically where does a scene start and where does it stop.

    Depending on the story arc, there could be a series of actions that are reversible individually, but when done in sequence become irreversible. This is more complex plotting, though.

    In general, I agree with Davin as a rule of thumb. As with all rules, it can be broken if done with purpose and style.

  2. Davin, you always leave me thinking! What great gems you have on your blog.

    However, I am quite concerned for Rodrigo :)

  3. Ah, Davin, you're a genius. And I couldn't stop giggling at the whole Rodrigo thing.

    I think this is a great way to look at why some scenes don't work and some do. Also, why many books get boring at a certain point. Too many reversible actions! These are lovely points to consider as I'm editing. Thank you.

  4. Poor Rodrigo!

    Reversible actions, then, would primarily go to character while irreversible actions would go to both character and plot?

    Last night I added an irreversible action to the first couple of pages of my ms. I wasn't thinking in those terms then, but I am now! Probably I should move that irreversible action to the first paragraph of the first chapter, if I can. Hmm.

    I think these are very useful terms; excellent post. Again.

  5. What a great informative post. I think I mostly do this (although coming into rewrites soon, so I will have to double-check), but have never thought of it in this exact way.

  6. Hmmm...interesting way of putting it!

  7. Awesome post. Your blog is like a Literary Class. Good stuff.

    What do you think about balance? Do we need reversible action in our stories, or do you think it's possible to have a story with no (or very little) reversible action?

    Too much reversible action is boring, but what might too much irreversible action be? Fast paced to the point of no longer making sense? Hmmm...

    I always leave here thinking and wanting to comb through and nitpick my MS.

  8. Enough great post! Definitely something to ponder.

  9. Rick, I'd argue that if the actions do indeed come together at the end, then they end up being irreversible. But, at some point, it becomes a discussion on semantics.

    Justus, there's always something!

    Thanks, Robyn.

    Thanks, Lady Glamis.

    Thanks, Scott. Yeah, you bring up a good point about irreversible actions going to both character and plot.

    Hi Kate, I think a lot of what good writers do is simply intuitive, which makes it so much easier for you!

    Thanks, Beth.

    Kat, I think you are exactly right. In the end it's up to you and these ideas definitely affect pacing. I tend to like tighter stories, but then again I've also been told that my writing doesn't give people a chance to catch their breath!

    Thanks, Crimogenic!

  10. I write a genre where this is especially difficult (fantasy and sf) because the genre is notorious for reversing seemingly ireverasible actions. The character died? Sure, but it's okay because Dr. Frankenstein brought him back to life. The character turned evil and ate his friend? Sure, but it's okay because she was just possessed by a thoth demon, and is vegan again now, thanks.

    Reading your post made realize this is one reason bad fantasy can be so very, very bad. :) If every action is reversible, it's hard to maintain real tension.


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