Q&A: Emotional reactions

Debra E Marvin asked:

Hi Camy, here's my question:

Somewhere in a judges' comment or a 'how to' book I grasped an idea that I thought would improve my work.

reaction, emotion, dialogue

meaning to me that when something happens or someone speaks, our character has a reaction that prompts an emotion and then they speak. (This done with the idea that these 'things' are part of the conflict).

Problem is, that by doing this, I now have been told that I'm burying my dialogue, because some have been at the end of a sentence or two of 'reaction and emotion'.

However, popping that dialogue to the front of the paragraph doesn't seem to make sense.

I feel like I latch on to these rules, thinking I'm doing the right thing and then . . .

Camy here:

Let me suggest a slight tweaking of that "reaction, emotion, dialogue" tool.

One of my favorite tools for writing emotion is Motivation Reaction Units, which Dwight Swain writes about in Techniques of the Selling Writer.

(Click here to read my article on Motivation Reaction Units)

Basically, you have a motivation or stimulus, then the character reacts to it.

Reactions can be many things—a visceral/physical reaction, thought, dialogue, action. A visceral reaction is like a physical knee-jerk reaction. Thoughts are, well, thoughts. Same for dialogue and action.

The difference is that depending on what the motivation/stimulus is, a person's reaction is going to be different. They aren't always going to think or feel before saying something. They may have a strong visceral reaction first before doing anything. They may act without thinking for a few seconds before their thoughts are in order.

In general, reactions go in order of least effort: visceral, thought, dialogue, action. You will probably have a gut reaction or a thought first before you say or do something. This is because it takes more synapses firing to say or do something than it takes to think or have a knee-jerk reaction.

Here are a few examples:

"Your mother is dead," he said flatly.

Sara's stomach flipped (visceral reaction). Mama dead? Could it be? (thoughts) "How do you know?" (dialogue) She clenched her fist. (action) He must be lying. (thoughts)

In the example, I used all four reactions. But the stimulus was pretty emotional. What if the stimulus is something minor? You can use one or two reactions instead of all four.

"Your mother's asleep," he said.

"Let her sleep," she said over her shoulder (dialogue) as she walked out of the room (action).


"Your mother's in the garden," he said.

Now that was strange. (thought)


"Your mother's at work," he said.

Her tightly clenched stomach released (visceral). Good. She had time to search her room. (thoughts)

The one thing to remember is to make sure the reactions are in order: first visceral, second thought, third dialogue, fourth action. You can switch them once in a while, but if you do it regularly, it creates a psychological dissonance and it distances the reader from the character's emotions.

"Your mother is dead," he said flatly.

She clenched her fist. (action) Mama dead? Could it be? (thoughts) Sara's stomach flipped (visceral reaction). "How do you know?" (dialogue) He must be lying. (thoughts)

If you compare the above with the original, you can see that Sara's reaction is a bit disjointed because the reactions are not in the proper order.

I answered your question in a slightly roundabout way, but hopefully in a way that makes a bit more sense. Let me know if you still have questions!

If you have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!


  1. Although I don't write fiction (at least not yet but who knows I might in the future), the explanations and examples you gave in this post made a lot of sense and provided some missing links in the belief system at the basis of the process for creating unconditional freedom from unwanted emotional reactions that I discovered 10 years ago.

    Dr Claude Windenberger


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