How To Write a Reaction

What is a Reaction?

A reaction is a response to an occurrence.

A reaction happens in three steps: Action, Instinct, Response. An event occurs. Instinct kicks in first. A reasoned response follows.

Let’s use an illustrative example, from my pretend novel Bad Sale:

Richard walks through his corn field, checking the crop. Nearby, a gunshot cracks off. Richard jumps at the sound. He crouches down and stares at the treeline, wondering who is shooting at his corn field?

Now let’s deconstruct:

Line 1 sets the scene (Richard walking)

Line 2 is the action (gunshot)

Line 3 is instinct (jumping in surprise)

Line 4 is Richard’s reasoned response (crouching for protection then wonder what’s happening)

In fiction, there are two reasons for this lesson in physiology.

First, how a character responds to the unexpected shows something about him. Richard, for instance, is a private citizen. He’s surprised by the gunshot and crouches, for his own safety. He wonders why there is gunfire because, apparently, it’s not a common occurrence.

If Richard lived in a crime-ridden city, his instinct would not change–he’d still be startled. His response would depend on his life experience. That’s what puts the reason in his reasoned response. He might hit the deck; he might jump into a doorway; he might reach for his own weapon. Instead of wondering why there is gunfire, he might wonder if it hit someone he knows.

If Richard is a police officer or soldier, his physical response would be the result of training: instead of cowering, he might seek cover or charge toward the gunfire; or he might command people around him to get down or hide.

How a character reacts to a surprise or event is full of clues about the character.

The second reason a fiction writer should understand the order of reaction is to understand what happens when the order is disrupted.

For instance, I often see a paragraph like this:

~ Jessica jogs through her quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Suddenly, a neighbor’s dog charges toward the street. How did it get loose? It’s always chained. Jessica stumbles at its ferocious bark. She rights herself and sprints away.

See the problem?

Line 1 sets the scene (Jessica jogging)

Line 2 is the action (dog charging)

Line 3 is part of the reasoned response (asking why question)

Line 3 is instinct (Jessica stumbles)

Line 4 is part 2 of her reasoned response (recover and run away)

By asking questions before she responds, Jessica pauses the flow of action. When a dog charges, do you run first or wonder first? On the page, she delays her immediate, instinctive physical response. The first question gives the dog time to catch her. A second question means the dog has latched onto her ankle. If she asked another one, the dog would be gnawing on her leg.

As a reader, I’m wondering why Jessica is asking questions when there’s a dog charging at her. I’m shaking the book, saying, “Run, Jessica, run!”

Think about it. When you are surprised, what do you do?

First, you react instinctively (jerk, jump, stumble, yell.)

Then you respond to protect yourself (duck, cower, raise your hands, cover your ears.)

Then you ask questions (Who let the dog out? Who’s shooting in my corn field?)

This is how it happens in real life. This is how it should happen in fiction. If you allow your characters to ask questions first and respond second, they’ll get dog bit.

Have you written a character whose life experience or training has altered their response to danger?



8 thoughts on “How To Write a Reaction

  1. Good post, Ramona. I’m going to have to include this in the long list of things I look for as I revise my first draft! I wouldn’t be surprised if I got things out of order from time to time.


  2. This seems so simple, but I know it’s something I don’t consciously think about. Thanks so much, Ramona! I’m putting this on my list of edits to watch for.


  3. Terrific analysis! A friend explains the “reptilian response” to danger — move quickly, don’t think, in part to explain test anxiety to teachers in workshops. Once she hit my desk hard and suddenly, to startle me, and then asked me my name — I couldn’t answer. (She knew me well enough to know it was safe to do so ;-).


    1. Mary, I love the reptilian response–wish I had thought to include it. Freezing in response to danger is common, and works in fiction, both for plot and to show character. Thanks for bringing it up!


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