In the world of physics, every action causes a reaction. In stories, every action taken by the villain causes a reaction from the hero and vice versa. If your story seems to bog down, it may be because it’s missing this constant action-reaction cycle.
Your villain always starts the story off. In most cases, the audience has no idea who the villain is or what he wants. All we know is that something is happening, but we don’t know who is behind it.
Consider how the villain acts and the hero reacts (and vice versa) in “Star Wars.”
Action: Darth Vader tries to get the Death Star plans from Princess Leia.
Reaction: Princess Leia hides the plans on R2D2 and jettisons R2D2 to Luke’s planet.
Action: R2D2 meets Luke and inadvertently shows the Princess Leia hologram. Then R2D2 runs away.
Reaction: Luke chases after R2D2.
Action: Darth Vader’s stormtroopers massacre Luke’s aunt and uncle.
Reaction: Luke decides to go with Obiwan and Hans Solo to Princess Leia’s home planet.
Action: Darth Vader tries to get Princess Leia to reveal the location of the rebel base. She lies.
Reaction: Darth Vader blows up her home planet anyway.
Action: Luke shows up and Darth Vader believes it’s the same ship that escaped from Luke’s home planet.
Reaction: Darth Vader tractor beams the ship into the Death Star.
Action: Luke and everyone else manages to sneak out of the ship and take over a minor control center.
Reaction: Stormtroopers are sent to investigate a possible problem in the control center.
Action: Luke discovers Princess Leia being held prisoner.
Reaction: Luke decides to rescue her.
Action: Luke rescues Princess Leia.
Reaction: The stormtroopers have caught up to them and have them trapped.
Action: Luke and everyone escapes down a garbage chute.
Reaction: The stormtroopers are on high alert.
Action: Luke and everyone run back to the ship.
Reaction: The stormtroopers are after them.
Action: Obiwan shuts off the tractor beam and heads back to the ship.
Reaction: Darth Vader confronts him.
Action: Obiwan and Darth Vader fight.
Reaction: Luke and everyone else have time to escape in the ship.
Action: Luke and everyone escape.
Reaction: Darth Vader follows the hidden transmitter to chase after them.
Action: Darth Vader knows where the rebel base is.
Reaction: The rebels fight back with their plan to exploit the Death Star’s weakness.
Action: The Death Star is about to blow up the rebel base, which was its original goal in the first place.
Reaction: Luke destroys the Death Star.
Notice that in Act I, the villain tends to initiate the action while your hero reacts. Then in Act IIa, your hero tends to initiate the action and your villain reacts.
In Act IIb, your villain initiates the action and your hero reacts. Finally, in Act III, your hero and villain act with their own plans that conflict and cause the most amount of conflict.
Act I — Villain tends to initiate the action and your hero reacts.
Act IIa — Hero tends to initiate the action and your villain reacts
Act IIb — Villain tends to initiate the action and your hero reacts
Act III — Hero and villain initiate action that puts them on a collision course
In Act I, your villain’s plan is already in motion while your hero is floundering around. In Act IIa, your hero enters a new world and learns new skills. In Act IIb, your hero starts losing again. Finally in Act III, the fireworks begin as the hero and villain directly clash.
Think of every part of your story in terms of action and reaction and your story should never slow down or drag.