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The Difference Between An Active and Reactive Plot Line

There are only 2 forces in this world: what we make happen by our own two hands (we drive the car) and the random acts we react to (we get hit by a car).

REACTIVE PLOT LINE: Bob must walk one block to Grandma’s house. Two steps out his front door, a dog bites his leg. He’s rushed to the hospital and tagged with a huge bill. He comes home the next day. Still needing to walk to Grandma’s house, he sets off on his journey again. Halfway there, Miley Cyrus' wrecking ball swings across the road and tags his head. Knocked out for 20 minutes, he continues down the road and narrowly misses getting hit by a car. Finally, he reaches Grandma’s house and sits down with a hot plate of cookies. THE END.

A reactive plot line is that which the character spends the entire time reacting to random situations which are thrown at them the entire book. To where there would be no story if these circumstances didn’t interrupt their forward progress. They could sit in their room and stare at the wall the entire book, yet there would still be a story there because the house could burn down, aliens could abduct them, Miley Cyruses wrecking ball could throw them into space. Yet, all they had to do for any of that to happen, was sit in their room and stare at the wall.

This is not a bad plot line, because many popular books follow this format. To name a few:

Deep Blue

Wizards First Rule

The Eye of The World

Iron King

THE PROBLEMS WITH HAVING A REACTIVE PLOT LINE: I’ve read all four of the above books and hated them all with the exception of Deep Blue because I was in love with the under-the-ocean setting. And why didn’t I like them? Because they were predictable. These random events would happen to the character where death appeared eminent. But because there are still 300 pages left in the book, I know the character will live, so I’m not at all concerned for their welfare and I even feel a little detached. I start to know SOMETHING is going to happen to the character, and every situation the character goes through I know they will come out alive and well. A reactive plot line leaves little room for the reader to be surprised with unexpected twists.

AN ACTIVE PLOT LINE: Bob must walk one block to grandma’s house, because Grandma has been kidnapped and he has to gather clues. He reaches her house and finds a note with three names on them. Believing these names to be the kidnappers Grandma identified, Bob does a google search and pulls up one of the names. He goes to the address listed. By process of elimination, he finds one of the kidnappers. Bob ties the kidnapper to a chair and beats him for information, and discovers Grandma has been forced into cookie-making slavery. Bob rescues Grandma, and eats a plate of cookies with her for his reward. THE END.

An active plot line is that which nothing happens in the story except the character makes it happen. To where there would be no story if all Bob did was stay home and stare at the wall. There would be no fire, no aliens, and no wrecking ball. He might get up to use the toilet and make food once in a while.

This is a better plot line to have. Books who used this format are as follows:

Red Queen


Map of Bones

The Maze Runner

*Some of the above books DO have reactive elements in them, but I will discuss why further down. The above books are massively active plot lines.*

I do not see any problems with this plot line. It’s not predictable, because we never know what the character is going to do from moment to moment. When Bob captured one of the kidnappers to beat him for information, we don’t know if Bob is going to put the man’s head in a microwave and turn it on, or bust in his knee caps, or drop him in a pit of snakes. Further, we don’t know if him performing those measures will be enough for the kidnapper to talk. The active plot line leaves a lot of room for twists, because now Bob discovers Grandma faked her own kidnapping so she could become a cookie-baking world tyrant.

HAVING BOTH AN ACTIVE AND REACTIVE PLOT LINE: Let’s admit it; most of the time our characters would be really content just to bumble along in life, and so we impose a random act to happen to them to kick them into gear. Bob was watching TV and Grandma calls, threatening to stop paying his rent if he doesn’t go to her house right now and eat cookies, or Bob was sleeping when he receives a phone call saying Grandma had been kidnapped. That is a reactive moment, where some unforeseen event kicks our characters in the butt and forces them to react in some way which starts the story.

I RECOMMEND: For what my recommendation is worth, I enjoy active plot lines FAR more than I do reactive ones, for all the reasons I’ve listed above. But neither are wrong.

Which plot line do you like to write/read? Explain in the comments.

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