For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Isaac Newton declared more than 300 years ago. He was talking about the laws of physics, but if there were such a thing as the laws of writing, Newton’s law would apply. It’s one of the simplest ways to build characterization, and one of the most effective. Let’s borrow a term from the movies, which have long exploited the technique: “reaction shot.”
In fiction, a reaction shot is a brief portrayal of how your character reacts to something that someone else has done. In contrast to more direct character building, your guy doesn’t initiate the sequence; he completes it. Exactly how he completes it can tell readers a lot about him. Let’s see how.
Thought as reaction
Different people respond differently to the same stimulus. One way to portray this is through a few sentences inside your character’s mind. Here I’ve created Sam Colby, a recent college graduate, reacting to a woman who will be interviewing him for a job he really wants:
Ms. Cameron entered the room. Mid-forties, dark hair, nice figure. Sam stood. Maybe she was susceptible to charm; a lot of these old broads liked being flirted with. It was worth a shot, anyway.
The first three sentences give us action plus a description of Ms. Cameron. But the last sentence gives us a lot of information about Sam: He’s smarmy, opportunistic and probably a bad judge of character. Very few middle-aged interviewers would be impressed by a come-on in such a situation. We know this, but Sam doesn’t. His reaction to Ms. Cameron, as revealed in his thoughts, tells us more than he knows himself.
Suppose you want to create a different kind of Sam? Then you give him different reaction thoughts:
Ms. Cameron entered the room. Mid-forties, dark hair, nice figure. Sam stood. She looked kind; at least, she was smiling at him. Maybe this interview wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Maybe he’d be able to get through it without making a complete fool of himself.
Same setup, much different character. This Sam is nervous, insecure, hopefuland far more likable than our first version. The reaction thoughts convey all this without resorting to abstract descriptions of Sam’s character. We’re shown him, not told about him. We’re right there, inside Sam’s head, which means we’re participating in the story.
The same technique, at slightly greater length, can be used to create a Sam more complex than either of our first two versions. It can also hint at his background:
Ms. Cameron entered the room. Mid-forties, dark hair, nice figure. Sam stood. He always felt guilty around women like this: women like his mother should have been. She and Ms. Cameron were the same age, after all, but his mother was such a frump, fat and dowdy and shrieking at him in that awful Brooklyn accent, and what kind of son thought that way? God, he was such a loser. Ashamed of his mother, who’d done just everything for him.
This Sam has tied himself in knots before the interview even begins, and we’ve received a thumbnail sketch of why. It should be an interesting interview.
Dialogue as reaction
You can use a character’s thoughts to show reactions only if that person is a point-of-view character. But other members of your cast can still show reactions that will tell us what they’re like. Dialogue is ideal for this.
Here is Sam arriving back home, where his mother is waiting to hear the results of his job interview. Note how the three different speeches give us three very different mothers:
- Sam took off his coat. “I didn’t get the job, Mom.” Mrs. Colby said, “That company isn’t good enough for you, Sam! They don’t recognize talent when they see it. The hell with them. I’m going to call your Uncle Lewis. He’s important at the SEC; he’ll make them sorry they didn’t take you.”
- Sam took off his coat. “I didn’t get the job, Mom.” Mrs. Colby said, “I’m sorry, Sam. Do you want a cup of coffee?”
- Sam took off his coat. “I didn’t get the job, Mom.” Mrs. Colby said, “You didn’t get it? Aiieeee! What was you doing wrong? You was late to the interview, wasn’t you? I knew it! You’re always late!”
Use this technique when you want to give readers a vivid impression of a character who is not a POV. The character doesn’t have to do anything major; he just has to react to what others do.
Action as reaction
Both POV and non-POV characters can reveal themselves through actions performed in response to some event. I think we’ve had enough of Sam’s job interview; let’s illustrate with a new situation. Later in this supposed story, Sam and his mother are sitting in the living room, watching television. Sam’s older brother Jon comes in, blood on his face, his clothes torn.
- “Mom … I’ve just … there was just a car accident.” Sam stood. “Are you all right, Jon?” There was a noise behind him and he turned just in time to see his mother faint dead away.
- “Mom … I’ve just … there was just a car accident.” Sam stood. “Are you all right, Jon?” Beside him his mother crossed herself, her lips moving in prayer.
- “Mom … I’ve just … there was just a car accident.” Sam stood. “Are you all right, Jon?” His mother crossed to the sideboard and poured herself a stiff drink. Her hand trembled.
We could just as easily have given these actions to Sam, if it was he we wanted to characterize as hypersensitive, pious or alcoholic. Reaction shots have great flexibility; you can mix and match them like items from a Chinese menu. One character might react with an action, a line of dialogue and thoughts. Another might not react at all. It depends on which characters you want to emphasize, and which ones you prefer to downplay.
How much reaction?
Not every event requires a reaction. In addition to emphasizing characters, how you deploy reaction shots will also emphasize events. Something that earns a major reaction from a character will also seem major to us. This is true even if the events themselves appear relatively trivial. This is a good way to signal that a seeming triviality means more than we yet know.
Suppose, for instance, that Sam announces he met an old high school friend, Ginny, on the street. If his mother or brother just nod, or say something like, “That’s nice, dear,” the reader will assume the meeting is routine. But what if either mother or brother turn to Sam with stupefaction, try to speak and fail, and finally croak out, “Ginny? You … met … Ginny?” Then we readers will wonder why the meeting evoked such a strong reaction. Something important must be connected to Ginny, we think. We’re primed for major action.
All this leads to some guidelines for how strong your reaction shots should be. Save strong reaction shots for:
This last needs emphasizing. I have seen too many student manuscripts in which the protagonist announces that she can time travel, or has just witnessed a murder, or hasn’t eaten in 10 days. Then her friend reacts mildly, the verbal or action equivalent of “Oh.” This immediately undermines the credibility of the story. Real people, the sane ones, react to the unusual with unusual reactions. Show their surprise or skepticism or disbelief or concern or fear that a friend is going crazy. If you don’t, the plausibility of the story is undermined.
The reverse of this is the story in which everyone gets hysterical over everything. Not only is this implausible, it’s wearing, like being in a room of constant screamers. Save the violent reactions to genuinely trivial events for those characters who habitually over-react to everything, whom you want to portray as a bit hysterical and not very credible. And, don’t have many such people in the same work of fiction.
Reaction shots in a story written in first person offer a special opportunity. In one sense, everything in the story is a reaction shot, since we are getting everything through the eyes of the first-person protagonist. You show this protagonist reacting through thoughts, speech and action. But you can also enhance those reactions by exploiting the language specific to your character’s personality.
To see this, let’s revise one of our three “job-interview Sams.” If this story were being written in first person, we could convey Sam’s reactions in his own language:
Ms. Cameron entered the room. Mid-forties, dark hair, nice figure. I stood. Was standing right? Maybe I should stay sitting, like I’d impressed Susie Allenson that time by sitting down when … forget Susie Allenson! God, I was such a dork … Susie Allenson! Can’t let my mind wander … Ms. Cameron looked kind. What was she going to ask me? Job experience. … I had no job experience. What a fool I was to think I could get this job! Susie Eff-ing Allenson. … I was doomed. I might as well go home now. Ms. Cameron looked at her paper. “Hello. And you are …” “Susie Allenson,” I blurted.
This reaction shot works even better if your first-person character thinks in some unusual way: in dialect, or in very precise language, or with allusions to a specific culture. When that’s the case, weave his or her language throughout your reaction shots. You gain not only characterization but literary atmosphere.
The next time you read a story or go to the movies, watch for the reaction shots. Note how effectively they inform us about a character’s personality. Then try using them in your own fiction.
Lights … camera … reaction.
This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.