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Physical Reactions to Convey Emotions

Liz here.

Diana gave a great overview of physical reactions, and Jen did a super job of explaining motivation/reaction units. 

But other than because we all have physical reactions to things, why do we write them? In this day and age of deep POV, physical reactions become especially important. You can no longer tell emotion. You have to show it. How? Through physical reactions. 

There are, of course, the outward physical reactions. If you stub your toe, you're going to hop around. If someone dies, you're going to cry. If someone angers you, you're going to scream and stomp. 

But to truly get deep into your characters' emotions, don't forget to include the internal physical reactions. We call these visceral reactions. These are reactions our bodies can't control. They're reflexive. When I stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, my palms sweat and my heart races. When my husband walks through the door at the end of the day, my heart beats faster. When I step onto an aircraft, my stomach clenches. 

If you use visceral reactions correctly, you don't even have to describe emotion. Why? Because the reader can feel the emotion. From the above examples, you know I'm afraid of heights, I love my husband, and I hate to fly. And this deepens the POV by making the reader emotionally involved with the characters.

Be careful not to use cliche emotions or to use the same ones over and over. Hearts do a lot of racing and stomachs do a ton of somersaulting in many books. One of the most helpful resources I've found is The Emotion Thesaurus. It has lists of physical reactions related to different emotions. Keep it open while you write and rewrite to keep you voice fresh.

Also, be careful to save visceral reactions for important scenes, where the emotion really runs deep. Overuse of visceral reaction can tire your readers - something you definitely don't want to do!

Go through your WIP, identify where you name emotion, and add a visceral reaction instead. Have fun!

Liz's latest release is A Match Made in Heaven in the Matchmaker Brides collection. Pastor Len Montgomery receives an unusual letter from an Omaha farmer that turns him into the matchmaker he never wanted to be. But the match he most wants to make, the one with the town’s sweet, charming, and Shakespeare-quoting postmistress, may be out of his reach. Visit her website and sign up for her newsletter to read the fascinating story behind this story. 

The Action/Reaction sequence


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.

  1. Instinct and feelings
  2. Reflexive actions
  3. 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!

Jennifer's latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody by signing up at www.JenniferVanderklipp.com


Physical Reactions in Writing Take 2

Physical Reactions 2 ways to do it

Diana here

Letting your characters respond to the stimulus you placed in their path helps the reader to feel they are experiencing the same thing.

Ask if the stimulus should/could/would affect your character, emotionally or physically? Then ask, which is best for your story?



Many times it can be both! Here's how.

Emotionally
Thinking about the plot of my next book I smacked into a car on the parking lot of the mall. I glanced around, had anyone who knew me seen me? It would give them one more piece of ammo to aim at me. Would they think of something new to call me? Clumsy, klutzy, head in the clouds I've been called them all.

Physical
Thinking about the plot of my next book I smacked into a car on the mall parking lot. A sharp pain ripped through my weak knee. I gasped and sunk to the ground holding in screams with my hand.



I wrote about  Writing Physical Reactions here and showed you how to make subtle changes to bring your writing alive.

Pull out a piece of your writing and incorporate some physical reactions.


Tweet this: How to affect your character emotionally or physically

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