Diana gave us a good overview last week about how reactions can be either physical or emotional. Good writing requires both, because it gets the reader in the character’s head and helps create that emotional bond that makes for the most excellent reading experience.
Physical reactions are part of an Action/Reaction sequence. It’s important to get these in the right order or your reader will feel like something is off, even if she doesn’t know what it is.
Dwight Swain in his Techniquesof the Selling Writer goes in depth on this subject, and it’s worth studying.
The points to remember are that every action has a reaction, and they need to come in the proper order. That’s how we process information in the real world, and if our characters do it differently, it pulls us out of the story.
Motivation and Reaction
There are two parts to keep straight: Motivation and Reaction. They are based on the POV character and what they can see, experience, and feel.
Motivation is what your POV character sees.
It is external and could be seen by anyone.If a camera was filming the scene, it would be visible or audible.
Example: There’s a knock at the door. Anyone can hear that knock. There’s no question or interpretation needed.
Reaction is what your POV character does in response to the Motivation.
It is internal and subjective. And it occurs in a physiologically precise order.
- Instinct and feelings
- Reflexive actions
- Rational actions and speech
Example: Joe jumps and his heart pounds (1). He leaps from the couch (2). Could Marie be at the door? How did she get here so quickly? He peeks out the window. (3)
When you read it, it makes perfect sense. You can see it playing out. But if we move the pieces around, it just seems wrong.
He leaps from the couch. There’s a knock at the door. He peeks out the window. Could Marie be at the door? How did she get here so quickly? Joe jumps and his heart pounds.
I’ve seen sentences like that and so have you. But it doesn’t feel right. It feels jerky, and it keeps your reader from getting in emotionally deep with the characters, which is the only reason we do anything! You lose the emotional reaction of the reader because there is nothing to respond to.
The Reaction is where the emotionally compelling part is. Get us in your POV character’s skin and let us reaction to the Motivation exactly like your character would react.
The Reaction will vary based on your POV character and their backstory
It all comes around to backstory, doesn’t it? Look at this example with the same Motivation.
There’s a knock at the door. Joe’s heart pounds, a grin spreading across his face. He leaps up. Could Marie be at the door so quickly with his birthday present? He flings open the door.
A knock at the door could mean something good or something bad depending on your character. But notice that the order of the Reaction stayed the same.
Not every step of the Reaction must be included, but those that are must be in the proper order.
There’s a knock at the door. Joe leaps up. Could Marie be at the door so quickly with his birthday present?
Here it is the wrong way:
There’s a knock at the door. Could Marie be at the door so quickly with his birthday present? Joe leaps up.
It just feels wrong, like a campy SNL skit.
The final Reaction step will lead to a new Motivation and the cycle continues.
There’s a knock at the door. Joe’s heart pounds, a grin spreading across his face. He leaps up. Could Marie be at the door so quickly with his birthday present? He flings open the door. (First set.)
Marie stands there with a present in her hands (objective Motivation). Joe smiles. He hopes it’s the new video game he wants. He reaches for the present. “Won’t you come in?”(Subjective reaction, second set.)
See how the Motivation and Reaction got simpler, faster, and closer together as the action peaked? Using this correctly helps with the pace of your story.
The cool thing about nailing the Action/Reaction sequence is that it keeps showing and telling in their proper places, and it keeps your POV straight. If your sequences aren’t behaving, check those two areas to see where something has slipped.
We know now that the Motivation has to be showing. It has to be something we can all see. The Reaction is where it sometimes gets dicey. It can be easy to slip into telling, where we start telling what the POV character is thinking and feeling. Better to get us into those three steps of reaction and let us feel what she’s feeling. Let us see the world from behind her eyes.
Now go write something great!