Character reactions to an event, comment or action are often complex. For instance, what if Jill slaps Jack.
So what? The physical action alone isn’t enough to determine meaning in the story. Instead, the writer must give the reader some kind of clues as to what is really happening and what Jack and Jill think about it.
Character Reactions in 3 Easy Steps
Basically, there are three things you can use: a physical action, an internal emotion or thought, and dialogue.
You’ll see this recommended in a couple of conflicting ways. Some say the sequence should be Physical action – Emotion/thought – dialogue. Others say the inner reaction should come first, as in Emotion/thought – physical action – dialogue. Either works for me. Let’s try it.
Physical action: Jill stared at her stinging hand.
Emotion/thought: She’d been wanting to do that for days now, but had been too scared. She should be scared now!
Dialogue: “I’m sorry,” her voice quavered.
Or, switch it up.
Emotion/thought: Jack deserved that! But he wouldn’t leave it there. Fear suddenly gripped her.
Physical action: Jill turned and ran.
Dialogue: “You’ll never catch me.”
The point is that the reader needs more than a simple action. We too often get this wrong when we talk about the rule to Show, Don’t Tell. There was a time when I interpreted the rule so strictly that I was left with actions that floated ambiguously within the story and didn’t add up to anything.
The Complex-Reaction formula of action-thought-dialogue will help pull you back to a specific place and time.