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Don't Make Me Ask Why

Updated: Dec 25, 2022

Critiquing other people’s manuscripts of fictional works is fun for me because I start off with a declaration saying, “My comments are my opinion only,” and then proceed to mark up the writing in a nice way that says, “Your story is awful.”

However, there’s one thing budding writers do that annoys me. Maybe it’s because I’ve done the same thing.

It’s when,

A character feels, says, or does something

without the reader knowing why.

Across most manuscripts, I often write the question, “Why?”

I’m not speaking of mystery stories where we don’t know who the villain is, or when a character is drugged or otherwise compromised. I’m speaking of when a character says something like this for no reason:

“Damn it,” Aaron said.

There’s a problem with the writing when this is the first sign of trouble--even more so if we don’t yet know who Aaron is. When this happens, I sense that the author thought there should be tension or conflict at that moment so she just makes someone angry. But such feels empty to the reader unless there is a reason—a context—for the character's reaction.

Which of the following two cases resonates emotionally with you better?

Case 1: Julie says, “Oh, my gosh.”

-- or --

Case 2: Julie sees a car crash and says, “Oh, my gosh.”

Without ever having met you, I know that Case 2 elicits more emotion from you than Case 1. In fact, I’ll state for the record that Case 1 elicits no emotion at all. Without reason or context, character emotional reactions feel 2D, hollow, pointless, boring, and clichéd.

You don’t want any of that in your stories!

The five steps of character reaction

I read somewhere years ago that when a character responds to an event or condition, her reaction is best described in a series of steps in the following order:

  1. Event

  2. Character’s physical/physiological reaction

  3. Character’s emotional reaction

  4. Character’s thoughts

  5. Character’s outward response (dialogue, movement, decision making)

All steps are not required, but the more of them you include, the easier the reader can be immersed in your character’s experience.


Here are three examples from published literature demonstrating the above steps. I’ve added numbers within the examples where the steps occur. They’re not always in order, and some steps are missing, but you can catch the trend:

“You have come from England, then, signore, and have not heard the news? What can I say? It is very sad. I do not know what to say. Signor Ashley, he died three weeks ago. Very sudden. Very said. As soon as he is buried, the contessa, she shut up the villa, she went away. Nearly two weeks she has been gone. We do not know if she will come back again.” (1)

The dog began to bark again, and he turned to quieten it.

I felt all the color drain away from my face (2,3). I stood there, stunned (2,3). The man watched me in sympathy and said something to his wife (4), who dragged forward a stool, and he placed it beside me.

“Sit, signore,” he said. “I am sorry. So very sorry.”

I shook my head (5). I could not speak (3). There was nothing I could say (4).

-- My Cousin Rachel, Daphne Du Maurier

“Imperial Prince Andas sat up to stare about him (1). His head spun (2). He felt more than a little sick (2). But he steadied himself with one hand against the wall and looked about in desperate disbelief (5). He could not be seeing this (4)! A dream—surely a dream (3,4)!”

-- Android at Arms, Andre Norton

“Now we can see you,” said the voice. “Stand out in the middle of the room. Stand back to back. Clasp your hands behind your heads. Do not touch one another.” (1)

They were not touching, but it seemed to him that he could feel Julia’s body shaking. Or perhaps it was merely the shaking of his own (2). He could just stop his teeth from chattering, but his knees were beyond his control (2,3). There was a sound of trampling boots below, inside the house and outside. The yard seemed to be full of men (4). Something was being dragged across the stones. The woman’s singing had stopped abruptly. There was a long, rolling clang, as though the washtub had been flung across the yard, and then a confusion of angry shouts which ended in a yell of pain.

“The house is surrounded,” said Winston (5).

“The house is surrounded,” said the voice.

-- 1984, George Orwell

What surprised me is the number of books I had to go through to find three examples. Most of the time, Steps 2 through 4 are skipped entirely, as if authors think they’re writing movie scripts instead of novels. This tells me that many books would be richer with application of this principle alone!

This is good news for you because now you’re more informed than many professional authors. Take the lead and surpass them! Don’t worry. They’ll forgive you. Even if they have to do it in five steps.

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