Lesson: Actions and Responses

Audio Version

Actions and responses are at the heart of all stories. Understanding them is the secret to:

  • showing and not telling.
  • avoiding direction.
  • building up your entire story.


When I first introduced WOARO to you, I said that actions are the things a character does or say (or doesn't do or say) to get what they want.

They are active verbs that can be done to someone else (also known as transitive verbs): Tom hits Bill, or Sally kisses Greg.

They can be the physical actions they take or the dialogue they say. These are both actions.


Of course, actions don't stand on their own. There is always a consequence to them. There is always a response.

Like want and obstacle, actions and responses are really two sides of the same coin. One character’s action is often the response to another character's action.

And like want and obstacle, either of them can occur first:

  • Action/Response - A character takes an action and an internal or external force responds to it.
  • Stimulus/Response - An internal or external force takes an action and the character responds to it.
Anytime something happens to us, we often go through a sequence of actions and responses:

An external stimulus occurs and leads to an internal emotional response. This leads to a thought (how will I respond?), which then we choose to act (and/or vocalize).

Every step along the way, you need to show the actions and responses of your characters moving through the story. The moment you quit showing action and response, you quit showing the dramatic nature of the story.

This is what "show, don't tell" is all about.

Emotion is a response, but unless it impacts the direction of the story (either the character's future actions or another character's responses), we don't write it.

Emotions and a character's emotional journey are an actor's choices. They'll bring more nuance and care than we can write. *

❤️ The Heart of Conflict

This dynamic between action and response is the engine that makes the story work.

Characters take actions or respond to stimuli, which leads to further actions and responses.

We never know how it will turn out and it constantly feeds back on itself. Actions lead to unexpected responses and responses lead to unexpected action. Each moment interacts with every moment before and after it.

It is what creates conflict and struggle, and makes stories interesting and exciting.

Action/Response as Story Beats

The interaction between an action and a response is a story beat. A character wants something and takes an action to get it, which leads to a response, which leads to another action.

Sometimes characters will try an action only once to get what they want before trying something new, or they'll repeatedly try different approaches. Or a character will respond to a situation in different ways. Each time this happens, it advances to a new story beat.

For example, think of when you try to convince someone to do something. They may do it easily or it may take a lot of convincing and you may have to change tactics multiple times. Each of these attempts forms a story beat.

Stepping Stones

Some people find it helpful to think of this as stepping stones across a river.

Action beats as stepping stones across a river.

For a character to get what they want in a scene, they first take Action A, before it fails, so then they must advance to Action B which succeeds. But they still need to take one more action to make it all the way across.

Game Tactics

Other people find it helpful to think about story beats as exchanges in a game, like a volleyball game or chess.

You have a plan of attack, but your opponent is responding with their own plan as well. So then you have to respond to that, possibly altering your own plan.

But your actions also affect their plan, so they respond as well. After a few moves, your plan may have to change completely, and you must use a new tactic—a new step in the game.

Try/Fail Cycles

A final method that helps some people is try/fail cycles, an idea I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal.

Your character will try different actions to solve their problem, but they must continually fail. These fails come in two forms:

  1. yes/but - yes, their action succeeds, but a new problem happens.
  2. no/and - no, their action doesn’t succeed, and a further complication occurs.

Each of these try/fail cycles continues to progress the story forward.

The story ends when they resolve the problem with a try/success cycle. Again, it can happen in two ways:

  1. yes/and - yes, their action succeeds, and an additional thing now happens.
  2. no/but - no, they don’t succeed, but something occurs to move the story forward.

I personally think this is the most powerful one to adopt into your writing practice. If you apply this to what I said about WOARO, you can apply it to the smallest story beat and all the way across full scripts or seasons of a show.

There is another beat used in screenwriting, which acts as a temporary pause. For example:

Are you...?
Why are you here?

Although they exist, they are a form of directing actors, which I'll always discourage.


When building these story beats, or the actions themselves, the more specific you are, the more your character is defined.

How does your character get what they want? Do they threaten, cajole, beg, or some different action?

What actions and responses are in their toolbox? What aren't? Where do your characters draw the line?

When I talk about these actions, I'm not saying you have to write them into your script. This is more about thinking about how your character's actions shape the story.

You can be even more specific. Every action and response has many variations.

For example, how does a character in your story express love? Do they admire, embrace, envelop, idolize, kiss, pamper, protect, tease, romance, woo, worship, or something else? Maybe it's not a healthy love. Or maybe they're more distant.

Or how do they discourage someone? Do they abandon, dodge, leave, ignore, refuse, reject, revoke, scorn, or suppress?

More importantly, when your characters take different actions and responses reveals character growth.

A fantastic tool to discover a character’s action is Actions: An Action Thesaurus.

Please note: An asterisk "*" indicates information added after the video and audio recording.


Write a 2-3 page script of any type, that is only one location/scene and shows the back-and-forth action and response of two characters struggling with opposing wants.

There must be at least three different action beats. This means that as your characters face resistance, they must come up with new and different actions to get what they want. Avoid repeating the same action over and over (i.e. the angry guy can't only threaten the other character the entire script. He may have to cajole, bribe, compliment, or lie).

This is about a single scene of dramatic writing of a character taking progressive actions to get what they want but someone opposing and blocking them. Therefore, your character must take a new action or tactic to get what they want, and this will progress until the outcome or solution. This is about the dramatic struggle occurring at the moment.

❗No montages, no flashbacks, no jump cuts, no easy outs. Most importantly, no one can be hit, shot, or die.

Marking Criteria

  • Proper screenplay format (including descriptions, sluglines; parenthesis, and ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
  • Written in the active, present tense.
  • Proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Proper page count of the assignment, plus a title page that uses proper format.
  • Only 5 mistakes are allowed per script.

❗This assignment is due: Sunday, Oct. 1 at midnight. ( Saskatchewan time ).