As I wrote earlier on my blog, when writing, there are three things that are most important: actions, reactions, and reflections, meaning that after you show an action, your character should be reacting. This could include a flinch, a jolt, a motion of some sort, but if you’re like me, you like to focus on the face (although there’s plenty of other places to look). And I’ve noticed, when writing from first-perspective, it’s really important that you focus on your character’s internal reactions. It can jump start your readers’ reactions. Here are a few to start you off:


Happy Sad Angry
  • His eyes lit up…
  • His eyes twinkled…
  • His eyes crinkled…
  • He smiled…
  • He grinned…
  • His mouth twitched…
  • He brightened…
  • Her eyes swam with tears…
  • His eyes glistened…
  • He shut his eyes…
  • He sniffled…
  • His lower lip trembled…
  • He glared…
  • His nostrils flared…
  • He ground his jaw…
  • He gritted his teeth…
  • His cheeks turned pink…
  • He scowled…
  • His eyes flashed…
  • He stormed his way…
  • He barged ahead…
  • He jutted his chin…
Surprised Fear Disgust
  • His eyes widened…
  • He gaped…
  • His eyes went bug-eyed…
  • He inhaled a sharp breath…
  • He paled…
  • He blanched…
  • His skin went white…
  • He shrank…
  • He skulked…
  • He forked his fingers through his hair…
  • He stuffed his hands in his pockets…
  • He leered…
  • He sneered…
  • He stuck his nose in the air…
  • His brows knitted together…
  • He curled his lip…
Contempt Remorse Anticipation
  • His eyes narrowed…
  • His forehead puckered (or furrowed)…
  • He pursed his lips…
  • His eyes rolled skyward…
  • His eyes drooped…
  • He grimaced…
  • He winced…
  • He hunched over…
  • He curled into a ball…
  • He slumped his shoulders…
  • His eyes darted…
  • He scrutinized…
  • He nibbled on his lips…
  • He edged closer…
  • He paced…
  • He rocked on his heels…
  • He drummed his fingers…
  • He fiddled with his…
  • He squirmed in his chair…

A few trick phrases include, “His eyes burned with…” in which you can pretty much substitute any emotion, which is kind of hilarious. I guess you can burn with any sort of passion. Or, there’s “He screwed up his face…” Also a freebie.


Happy Sad Angry
  • A flutter of joy
  • May feel tearful or moody or irritated
  • May feel tired or lethargic
  • May feel a tightness in your chest or throat
  • May feel empty inside
  • May grind teeth
  • May feel flushed or pale
  • May clench fists
  • May feel a temperature change, i.e. blood boiling
  • May feel a prickly sensation
Surprised Fear Disgust
  • Quick breath
  • Heart skips a beat
  • Sudden sweating or heart palpitations (fluttering)
  • Easily startled
  • Heart’s beating faster
  • Taking quick, shallow breaths
  • Inability to focus except on worry
  • Sweating
  • Freezing in place
  • Feeling to fight
  • Cold hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling or tightening of the muscles
  • Frowning
  • Gagging, or pursing the lips
  • Turning stomach
  • Averting your gaze
Contempt Remorse Anticipation
  • Maybe a tightness in the chest?
  • Maybe a burning, like embarrasment?
  • Butterflies in the stomach

Note: Most internal changes register as a change in heart rate, temperature, or muscle tension, though most people only register a heart rate and palm sweating (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, Hietanen; 2013; p. 649).

Finally, I’m not recommending this book—mainly because I haven’t read it, and hence, have no opinion—but it seems like it’d be a good read for studies such as this, and I’d love to hear what people think of it.

Thanks to Bryn Donovan and Sharla Rae for the help with Visible Reactions!

And refer to this poster for even more help!




It’s been a while since I’ve talked about this technique, and I found a great example for it within Stross’ Glasshouse, so I thought now would be a good time for a gentle reminder.

ARR: Action-Reaction-Reflection

A technique, or pattern, used to develop a scene, where an action (or event) occurs, the character then reacts, and reflects on either why, how, or what it means. 

“Another drink?” Kay asks. “I’m buying.”

“Yes, please.” A warning bell rings in my head as I sense Blondie heading toward our table. I pretend not to notice, but I can feel a familiar warmth in my stomach, a tension in my back. Ancient reflexes and not a few modern cheat-codes take over and I surreptitiously loosen my sword in its scabbard. I think I know what Blondie wants, and I’m perfectly happy to give it to her. She’s not the only one around here prone to frequent flashes of murderous rage that takes a while to cool. The counselor told me to embrace it and give in, among consenting fellows. It should burn itself out in time. (Stross 5)

Action: Consider the action happening in this scene, when Blondie heads toward their table. Here is a specific event, which is recognizable through motion-type verbs.

Reaction: These are feelings that the character is experiencing, which usually concerns part of the body or types of emotions. Here, the character feels reactions within their stomach and back, reminiscent of excitement and pre-game tension.

Reflection: This is what the character is thinking in terms to what just happened. Here, the character is reflecting on why Blondie is moving, what he’s going to do next, how he feels about it, how others feel. There’s a lot of questions answered here, and this is usually the meat of a scene.

While action is necessary for readers to develop an image of what’s happening, reflection is most important because it help readers identify the reasoning of the story helping them align with the main character’s thoughts, aiding in immersion. Reaction helps a little bit with this, but it’s the mid-way point action and reflection, and helps more with the reader sympathizing with the character.

Each of these is an important step for a scene, and if one is missing, it does create weaker writing. I would know – I’m still struggling to keep plenty of reflection in mine.

Stross, C. Glasshouse. New York, NY: Act, 2006. Print.

Breaking expectations

When you’re mom exclaims, ‘Johnny! This is the first night you haven’t wet the bed! I’m so proud of you!!’ There’s good reason for her to be excited. Against all evidence, you’ve broken her expectations! When you’ve been wetting the bed since you were 6 and now you’re 13, she probably expected an ordinary night but instead there’s dry freedom! Congratulations! This situation awards you an accomplishment.

Of course the opposite is also true. You can break expectations in the reverse direction. If we’re following the moral compass…you can break expectations and fail spectacularly! As in, you’ve never crapped your pants before but as soon as you get a stomach bug in the middle of allergy season where you’re sneezing worse than that 27-sneeze girl in class, you do it. Yeah. You shouldn’t be proud.

This book is like that. Well, not the spectacular fail but instead breaking all expectations in a positive, dramatic way.

“Aside to his men [the Earth captain] whispered, “Now we’re getting someplace!” To Mr. Aaa he called, “We traveled sixty million miles. From Earth!” / Mr. Aaa [the alien]  yawned. “That’s only fifty million miles this time of year” (Bradbury 27).

How obnoxious! Here these Earthlings traveled all this distance, and no one gives *excuse my language* a crap. Absolutely none. No one could be bothered with this information.

And I love it!

I feel like the general expectation here is if you’re an ‘alien’ then people would react to you. There’s the War of the Worlds reaction: general dooms day apocalypse. There’s the welcoming with open arms, where the aliens donate their technology and culture, which I’m sure exists in some movie or book but whose name I can’t think of at the moment.

Either way, these all deal with reactions.

And this book has none, except boredom.

I like it.

By breaking all my expectations, there’s originality, creativity, and a disguised comment that I haven’t yet become aware of.

I’m enjoying the book so far.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

Reacting to “Lexicon”

I was really unsure when I started this book – the back cover sounded interesting, which I guess is a plus for the writers who wrote it – but when I started the book, you know nothing. Just like the character. This poor guy has been assaulted, kidnapped, in all senses of the word – tortured. I still have no idea who he is, what’s going on.

And it somewhat works. I’m still reading, mostly for curiosity at this point although I haven’t been entirely sated with the style. It’s been a lot of dry dialogue at this point, though the bathroom scene was slightly funny. I chuckled inside my head – mostly because people avoid bathrooms for scenes.

But I was truly impressed when I hit this paragraph:

A door opened. On the other side of it was a world of stunted color and muted sound, as if something was stuck in Wil’s ears, and eyes, and possibly brain. He shook his head to clear it, but the world grew dark and angry and would not stay upright. The world did not like to be shaken. He understood that now. He wouldn’t shake it again. He felt his feet sliding away from him on silent roller skates and reached for a wall for support. The wall cursed and dug its fingers into his arm, and was probably not a wall. It was probably a person. (Barry 8)

This is beautiful, mostly because the way it paints a picture – “stunted color and muted sound.” I love how it describes the feeling of being drugged, how he personifies the world with it “did not like to be shaken.” How he personified the wall because it was really a person. I felt like this was one of the most creative descriptions for being drugged, and I would love to see more personification for imagery.

I guess it’s some of my word/poetry love coming through writing.

Barry, Max. Lexicon. New York, NY: Penguin, 2013. Print.

Stream of Consciousness

It’s interesting to think of the components of a scene: dialogue, action, imagery, stream of consciousness… These are all necessary components. You need to see where the characters are at, what they’re doing, what they’re saying, what they’re thinking…Which is what I would like to focus on today!


Not my thinking because I’ve been told I think in weird tangents even though I feel like my mind is made up a series of 3D venn diagrams – bubbles that merge, un-merge and move thoughts around in circles, that constantly grow and shrink with worry/excitement. But, for the sake of our characters, for the sake of their simplicity, we’ll imagine they think in linear patterns.


What he’d done was wrong. He knew that. But her tolerating his presence felt like a benediction, a sign he deserved some place among the wealthy and beautiful, and oh God, he’d lied and was going to Hell. (Steinmetz 16)

This would be considered a stream of consciousness – a continuous flow of thoughts/reactions to an event. After the character slept with a woman, convincing her to bed through the use of magic, he felt guilty, and this paragraph reflects on that guilt, that satisfaction, then guilt again.

These kinds of thoughts should be in all scenes, maybe not always as long, maybe longer. Never in humongous chunks that take up most of the page. But, they do a good job of giving the reader the purpose, direction, plot, and help them identify more with the protagonist.

Steinmetz, Ferrett. Flex. Nottingham, UK: Angry Robot, 2015.


This sounds weird that repetition is a good thing, and maybe this overlaps with foreshadowing, but I was reading “The Ghosts of Christmas” and I found through each repetition, the author was actually reinforcing the character’s wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses. Through repetition, the author helped construct a more believable story. (Spoiler alert!)

1st: “It’s been proved that certain traits formed by a child’s environment do get passed down to its own children…I’m going to be a terrible parent” (Cornell 37)

In this quote, Cornell establishes that his protagonist belief that she is going to be a terrible parent because that is how she believes her parents were. To re-establish this fact, or repeat it, he transitions to a memory.

2nd: Dad watched football and in response to his daughter’s ‘play with me,’ said “You start, and I’ll join in later.” (38)

Another memory.

3rd: “…and in a moment they’d be bound to notice me…But they went to bed without looking in the lounge. I listened to them close the door and talk for a while, and then switch the light off, and then silence, and so it was just me sitting there, watching the greys flicker.” (38)

Her parents always forgot her. And although they weren’t particularly abusive, they were neglectful, never giving her the attention she deserved. In another memory, he drives home the point of her parents’ neglect.

4th: “I was standing in a lay-by, watching the cars go past, wondering if Mummy and Daddy were going to come back for me this time…I was six years old.” (38)

This was all back to back memories, stressing the protagonist’s concerns that she is going to be a terrible parent because that is how her parents were, which is a familiar feeling for most parents – will we grow to be like our parents?

I really liked this technique, this repetition of memories after her fear in order to stress what kind of parent she thinks she’ll be and in order to develop her history, since the reader can tell early on there is a stressful relationship between her and her parents.

It’s backwards of action, reaction. Sort of a reaction, action, used more for internal reflection rather than external response. I think this technique definitely worked rather well, especially in combination of Cornell’s expert weaving in and out of scenes. Just like the last story “Old Paint,” he did a good job combining mini-scenes to establish this character.

Cornell, Paul. “The Ghosts of Christmas.” Year’s Best SF 18. Ed. David G. Hartwell. New York, NY: Tor, 2013. 34-54. Print.

Baiting the hook

There’s a book I’ve been reading for class, called Brain Rules, and I would highly recommend it. Breaking the scientists-aren’t-good-writers stereotype, John Medina writes about twelve rules to improve your home and school life, things like get enough sleep, stress isn’t good for you, etc. And it all comes with scientific proof!

The chapter I read this week that I would like writers to know about is “Attention.” And this seems more and more important, based on what I’ve heard. People have told me chapters have been shortened so that readers feel like they accomplish more reading in short amounts of time. People have widened the margins so that readers feel like they cover more pages. In all aspects, publishers have made it so readers with short attention spans feel more accomplished when they read a book. And since not everyone will be laying out their own novels or stories, let’s discuss what everyone can do as a writer.

As Medina wrote, our attention is grabbed through a variety of sources, all of which are dependent on the individual. In the case of your memory, “you use your previous experiences to predict where you should pay attention” (107). For writer’s, we can still use this, just as Medina did in the beginning of this chapter.

It was about three o’clock in the morning when I was startled into sudden consciousness by a small spotlight sweeping across the walls of our living room. In the moonlight, I could see the six-foot frame of a young man in a trench coat, clutching a flashlight and examining the contents of our house. (105)

We all learned from an early age that people will have the inclination to rob each other, where, in most cases, they will try to do it when they assume the family isn’t home. This means that seeing someone at 3AM at your house is probably not a good thing. This is something we focus on because of our prior experiences or learning.

Another rule that Medina wrote is that, “If you have an interest in a subject or a person, or something is important to you, you tend to pay more attention to things related to that subject or person.” For authors, this is why it’s important to make a connection between your characters and your readers. If there’s no interest in that character’s life or pursuit, then there will be no press to keep reading.

A good way to keep interest is to charge it with emotion because “emotionally charged events are better remembered – for longer, and with more accuracy-than neutral events” (112). This means that you should be including actions, and reactions within your characters. They should be feeling emotion in order to instigate some reaction within your reader as well. We should be feeling love, hate, at least some emotion for your protagonist!

Medina said it’s common to pay attention to things like a threat, reproduction (sex), and patterns because it’s what our brain has been programmed to focus on, where we mostly have our ancestors to thank (113). To see these rules in action, look at the above example from Medina, and let me continue it.

As my sleepy brain was immediately and violently aroused, it struck me that my home was about to be robbed by someone younger than me, bigger than me, and in possession of a firearm. Heart pounding, knees shaking, I turned on the lights, went to stand guard outside my children’s room, called the police, and prayed. (105)

That should make everyone feel for him. He’s about to be robbed; there’s a guy with a gun; and his children are in danger. This is filled with emotion, weaving in common focuses like threat and reproduction (in this case his children – though you could argue that’s self-interest in his family).

This shows these rules are easily translated to writers. If you want a book to hook your readers, include some form of threat (conflict), some sort of romance (sex), and create patterns within the characters lives. Readers feel brilliant when they notice one between one past and present event, it’s all repeating.

To summarize, the goal of our writing is to capture the reader’s attention, and if we’re not doing that, then we’re technically failing. After all, if they can’t pay attention, they can’t read our story.

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2014. Print.

Smart Characters

Imagine this scene: there’s a guy walking around the parking lot. He’s carrying a crow bar, and avoiding the street lamps, where only a few light up the asphault. You decide to hide behind a car because you don’t want him to see you, and your heart is starting to skip while you try to breathe more shallow. Biting the inside of your cheek, you pray he doesn’t hear you.

Usually, that’s as far into a scene a writer will go. Then something silly will happen, the character will react, and everything goes to heck. I’m not saying everyone does this, but it’s usually the most common happening.

What I’m trying to show is that there’s another way to be skittish. You can be nervous but still be smart about the situation!

“The darkness beyond, however, made me wary…I picked up a stone and half threw, half rolled it onto the floor beyond those crushed double doors. It clacked and spun across the tile and disappeared from view. I heard no other sound, no movement, no suggestion of breathing beyond my own. Gun still drawn, I entered as quietly as I was able…” (Vandermeer 66)

To give you perspective, this was the biologist, and although she was trained for dangerous situations, going into some random environment with weird plants and animals, anybody can act like this! Characters can be smart. I thought this was a brilliant scene not only for her reaction, but the descriptions: the stone that clacked and spun.

I get a visual and an audio image which helps me construct the scene, and notice how it doesn’t focus on the whole scene – just a few pieces: crushed doors, the stone, and her gun. We’re not getting the whole inside of the location, but a few things that the character would notice in the moment.

It answers the questions: has someone been there before? Is anyone still here? How should I stay safe/prepared?

Keep this in mind when writing a scene, especially from first person. Write things your character would notice and include ways that would show they’re smart! Not all characters have to be dumb! (PS. I realize normal people wouldn’t be walking around with a gun, but if you’re in a life/death environment and are checking for people, this is a great thing to do! Keep this in mind for the zombie apocalypse.)

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.

Action, Reaction

I was reading this post I found – between my research for scene and summary – and while I was reading it, it’s like this light bulb went off inside my head, glowing with this superb luminescence. But, being distrusting as I am – always requiring proof that technique works – I have to test this theory. Is this really how to write great emotion? Great character voice?

Let me refer to the rule in general. As Swain described (as cited by Ingermanson), smaller parts of scenes are made up of multiple units, called motivation-reactions units (MRUs). These units focus on two parts: a motivation and the reaction of your character. Motivations are extrinsic forces within your story while the reactions are intrinsic and extrinsic responses. Ingermanson breaks the reaction down even further, separating it into 3 parts: feeling, reflex, action, emphasizing this must always be used in this order although each piece may not always appear. With the repetition of these MRUs, you eventually make up a scene. But, let’s test this and see how this theory holds. This is a rather long passage, so I’ll only use a part. This paragraph is about a boar running at the characters.

Nothing about its muzzle or broad, long face looked at all extraordinary, and yet I had the startling impression of some presence in the way its gaze seemed turned inward and its head willfully pulled to the left as if there were an invisible bridle. A kind of electricity sparked in its eyes that I could not credit as real. I thought instead it must be a by-product of my now slightly shaky hands on the binoculars. (Vandermeer 12)

Let’s break this down step by step, and examine each sentence for its purpose. Similar to what I’m doing in class when I define each purpose of the process of discourse.

First sentence:

This sentences shows the character reflecting on the motivation – the boar crashing toward the bushes toward them.

Second sentence:

The second part of the combined sentence shows the character’s feelings on the board, her impression of it.

Third sentence:

This is still feelings. She does not think it’s real.

Last sentence:

Her reaction as she tries to dismiss it – a product of her shaking hands.

Focus on the operative verbs within all these sentences. Reflect, feel, feel, react. There is a reflex we missed in here – her hands shaking – because it’s taken out of order, mentioned as a last thought, so let me go ahead and include it: reflect, reflex, feel, feel, react.

This means I disproved Ingermanson in the sense that these actions have to be in a specific order, but I supported him in his theory that some or all of these verbs may be present. And, I believe this is okay. Writing does not follow a specific rule, even though we try to define it, give it some sense of order even though that’s all it is – conscious feeling. Always a running sense of action and reaction, just like forces. If something happens, we react.

Use this as a simple tool to help refine your writing because I do support Ingermanson in this specific sense: actions and reactions are some of the most important pieces of writing, and without this, your story will fall flat.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.