Writing Reactions Right

Writing action scenes is important, but so is writing character reactions. Throughout the fiction you write, your protagonist must react to each and every event (action) encountered. A character who doesn’t react will have a difficult time moving the story forward.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s examine some ways to write character reactions in more effective ways.

Start Small

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? In fiction, some writers get confused by all the advice about scene and sequel and what those terms look like in their work. If you wrestle with this concept of scene/sequel, you can start small.

Instead of looking at an entire scene, focus on a particular moment. Your character encounters or experiences something new. How do you write that character’s reaction to the “new” element? For instance, let’s say your character meets someone for the first time. The action is that moment of recognition. The reaction has three possible ways to manifest: gladly, unhappily or neutrally. Characters must not be ambivalent very often.

If the character is open to meeting the person, he/she might react by sticking out a hand to shake, nodding or even saying, “Glad to meetcha.” If the meet is more tense, the reaction could be a tell-tale frown, grimace or other body language. It might be a sarcastic remark, “Pleased, I’m sure.” Either reaction is OK but you must keep in mind the story goal and the obstacles.

A Window

Reactions in fiction are important because they give readers a window into the inner life of your character. Ineffective reactions and sequels leave readers with two-dimensional characters, only documenting the surface story. If your story is fast-paced but shallow, working on these reaction sequels can remedy an ailing story.

Every fiction writer must balance these windows with outer events. Too much of what happens and not enough reaction or window into the character’s thought processes and the work feels flat or shallow. Too much reaction and not enough action and the result is a ruminative piece, where readers begin to feel trapped inside the character’s head for too long.

In general, your fictional opening should give only enough reaction to hint at the goal and the character’s motivation. Too many stories start with pages and pages of interior thinking. Writers believe they are setting up a rationale when in reality readers want to see as much action as possible at a story’s start. This back and forth tension between action (scene) and sequel (reaction) can mean the difference between reader engagement and boredom.

Scene and Sequel

We’ve been talking about scene/sequel in fiction, but only about the reaction portion. Reactions are vital in that they propel the character into the second part of sequel: dilemma. When your character reacts, she/he faces a dilemma on what to do next. This dilemma will highlight your character’s inner conflicts—that window we talked about.

But readers don’t want to stay with dilemma for long. In most scenes, readers hope the character reacts, ponders the next move and then strides right back into action. That decision to act is Sequel’s third leg.  For example, a stranger shows up in town. The protagonist reacts, let’s say unhappily. That character now has a dilemma. Should he shake hands anyway? Tell the stranger to move along?

That dilemma forces the protagonist to make a decision. Maybe he acts friendly while plotting to run the stranger out of town. Or he dismisses the stranger only to discover that he’s attracted to her. Whatever the outcome, scenes need sequels to help readers connect with the protagonist’s inner life and conflicts. Look for your character’s reactions to events to see where how they lead to dilemmas, decisions and back to actions.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Reactions Right

  1. I found this extremely helpful. When I first learned about Scene/Sequel it blew my mind but I’ve found it difficult to create. This isn’t simple by any means but I think approaching it the way you describe in the blog posts simplifies it in a more manageable way. Thank you!

    • Brian,
      I agree that the Scene/sequel concept is hard to grasp at first. Another thing to keep in mind is that the action/reaction/dilemma/decision may not always be contained in a linear way–often the elements are separated by narration or more action, etc.
      I’m glad you’re mastering this!
      Keep Writing,

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