Lesson: Linking Action and Response

If we needed to boil WOARO and scriptwriting down to one idea, it is that all happens in the dynamic gap between action and response.

A character does something and gets a response—externally, such as other people, animals, or other elements of the world; or internally, like emotions and thoughts.

And I say it's dynamic because each response has the possibility to change the response.

A character gets angry and is looking for a fight. They walk up and punch another character.

What happens next? They could punch back, run away, or cower. But what if the other character takes the hit and then calmly says they want to have a conversation?

A gap is created and now our punchy character must adapt to this new reality.


At the heart of all of our scripts is this back-and-forth interaction. Our goal as storytellers is to show it.

So this week we’re talking about the connections between these beats.

Story beats represent

1. Single exchanges of action/response or stimulus/response.


At its root, storytelling is all about these exchanges. A character does something and the internal and external world responds.

These actions and responses reveal character and they are the small steps taken toward a character’s want.

They can be dialogue or action and they are how we show, not tell.

For example, I've spoken about status transactions. When moving toward our wants, we are constantly trying to raise ourselves a little higher or a little lower than those around us. We may be in low status, but play high. And we do this through dominance or submission. These attempts are small exchanges of action and response.

2. They can also be a series of these single exchanges to form a longer beat.


A series of these exchanges can occur in a series and are led by a specific intention or tactic.

For example, a character may try to convince someone to give them money. They will pursue this beat until they either get the money or don’t, in which they need to move onto a new tactic.

👉 Notice how want, obstacle, and outcome have appeared in moving this beat along.

3. Or a group of these beats can carry across a scene.


A series of these tactics can stretch across a scene.

Going with our above example, the want is money, so the character could first try to convince, then threaten, then steal.

The scene ends when they either get it or don’t and are no longer able to pursue that want at the moment.

4. And of course, scenes make sequences, which can build into acts.

Out of the smallest beat (action/response), we can grow the entire story.

When we are chaining them together like this we need to think of direction.

1. We always want to be moving towards our goal (our want)

Our chains of action and response are connected by logical or causal relationships from previous beats in either a linear or non-linear way, creating tangents and side-chains.

👉 We build story through these links. When trying to move forward on story, always look back and connect and reincorporate what has happened before.

We are allowed detours. To get the thing, we may have to do a side quest. For example:

  • get something else to convince someone to help our character on their quest
  • or spend time with the family to please the love interest.
  • or handle unexpected external stimuli (most stories begin because of this).


2. We try not to repeat ourselves or go back towards that goal.

This stalls the action and confuses the viewer.

For example, we don’t pull a gun and then try to be friendly and kind—although some characters and stories may allow for this. (This is a good example of how action and response reveal character, tone, and genre).

Moving forward creates new action, new responses, and new stakes, thus creating rising action.

👉 Story is made by establishing routines and then interrupting them.

3. We also want to avoid skipping a step

This occurs because we’ve missed a logical or causal relationship between the beats.


Often this occurs because in our head we see the connection, but we haven’t communicated it to the reader or audience member.

4. Lastly, complexity can be added by layering these beats and connections.

Look at the opening scene from the social network. Each colored highlight represents a separate line of action of the story beats.