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The Power of Reaction

There’s one tool available to writers that I find is often underused: reaction. This is a missed opportunity. Even if you’re in third person but especially if you’re in first person, you need to highlight big moments in your story and call attention to emotion and character relationship by making sure each noteworthy exchange or event lands with your character.

How your character reacts to something gives your reader valuable clues as to how they should be reacting, what they should be learning from whatever just transpired, and how significant it is to the overall story.

For example, a character is staring out the window at night when, suddenly, she sees a firefly turn into a fairy princess out on the lawn. What is her reaction? If she thinks “Oh, no! Not again! That means dad will make me go out there first thing tomorrow and wash the fairy dust off the grass…” then that tells the reader that fairies are common in this world, and a bit of a nuisance. Not only do we get the character’s attitude about the firefly fairy, but we get valuable worldbuilding information (especially if this is the first time we see that this world has magic/fantasy elements to it). If she thinks “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” and runs screaming from the room, we may take that as our cue that firefly fairies are not the norm and that something truly odd is going on.

This is an example of how a reaction could fill in larger world context. It also gives us information about character. (Does she like magic? Is she over it? Etc.) You could also define relationship through reaction. If a girl we’ve never met comes up to a boy in the cafeteria and says “Hey,” and he says “Hey,” back, then that’s a rather bland scene. However, you could fill in a lot with reaction.

Two possible scenarios:

“Hey,” she said.
How could she be talking to him so casually after what she’d done. Now she was staring at him. Great. He couldn’t be the one to make this awkward. He bit down the string of obscenities that she deserved hurled at her and mustered up a rather bland, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, and immediately regretted the wasted opportunity. This was Cassie Price, of all people! Talking to him! The moment he had been waiting for his entire life and it was over just like that. Now Cassie had moved on, taking that musky scent of her jasmine perfume with her, and he didn’t know whether he’d ever have this chance again.

Same dialogue, two completely different scenes and relationships. And yes, for those of you wondering, I consider reaction to be a very important–if not the most important–function of Interiority.

Use it to make things seem important, too. If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or action. Draw attention to the things that matter by letting them matter more to your character. I bet there are a lot of such missed opportunities in your work.

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  1. Kat Abbott’s avatar

    Haha, I love the example of a girl thinking “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?” and running screaming from the room.

    Thanks for another great post! This is my favorite place to come for writing advice. Every time I read your blog I feel like I’m getting the Mary Kole MFA in creative writing.

    Can’t wait for the release of your upcoming book!

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    I wish I could think of something different to say other than my usual, wow! thanks for the great advice. You really have a talent for understanding and imparting the important elements of writing. I agree with Kat, every visit to your blog is like a mini MFA class.

  3. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Ditto Julie. Oh, and Kat, too.

  4. Carol’s avatar

    I am so glad to have your post and I think expressing and reaction make the story so interested to the readers and I loved the example of katt abott. Everyone knows that a proper planning for writing is very essential to get the desired result. It might go to the play, business and job etc.

    Carol@ business writing

  5. Melissa K’s avatar

    Agreed. It might also be worth saying that the context for understanding the reaction should come before or with the emotional part of the reaction, not after. That context starts with the stimulus that causes the reaction, but there often needs to be more information, too: a little half-sentence blob of backstory, a chunk of information to clarify the characters’ relationship, etc.

    Your “Hey”/”Hey” scenarios include this context by making it immediately clear that one character has betrayed another, and that one character likes another. In both examples, the relationship stuff is clarified in the very first sentence of the reaction, before the characters go into those emo thoughts about what they should’ve said or what they’d like to do, etc.

    A lot of intermediate writers (including me sometimes, but I’m working on it) give the emotional reaction first, which throws the reader into a brief moment of confusion before the context gets added as an afterthought. This leaves the reader slightly disconnected from what’s going on.

  6. C. David Milles’s avatar

    I agree. I teach writing to middle school students (and on the side write YA novels… I have the perfect audience). One of the things I teach them is the idea of showing vs. telling. Many times, their development level is at the point where they just tell what the characters feel, but it is more powerful to show the reaction. However, in the past, I’ve had difficulty getting them to understand “show, don’t tell.” Instead, I use a phrase that I learned a few years ago: “Don’t tell; let the reader see.” Let us hear their dialogue. Let us see their reactions. It gives us much more insight into the importance of what is going on in the story.

  7. Holly White’s avatar

    After your webinar yesterday in which I learned about your blog, I decided to go back and read it. I, like others who have commented, find it very educational. I just want to say that I agree with this one in particular. Whenever my husband is telling me something that happened, the first thing I always ask is, “What did she say to that? What did he do? How did she take that news?” It’s PART of the story. It frustrates me so much sometimes in movies when there is a huge buildup to a climax, and then at the climax, you don’t get to see the reactions of even the principal characters. I don’t know how the film editors can do this to the audience, tease us as if they’re going to give us this huge payoff, and then at the end, we only get fifty cents. It’s frustrating to the audience when the reactions get left out. So, in my story, anytime something important happens, I try to remember ask myself, how does each character involved react to this event? And then I answer that by going back to the character- how WOULD he react here? Would he get angry? Would he cry? Would he run away? Based on my characterization, I know (usually) what he would do. IF I have done my characterization well in the first place. But that … is another story, and likely, another blog. :)

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