How to Use Your Character’s Actions and Reactions to Build an Emotional Scene and Drive Your Plot Forward

Intro to NaNo (Sam)

  • NaNoWriMo is 50K words in 30 days, 1667 words per day
  • Start your book by day 1, finish it by the end of the month with 50K words
  • You can be a NaNo-rebel
  • Naperville region encompasses all the cities
  • Write-ins 5-9 pm every Monday here at GEPL
  • Almost every day libraries will host write-ins; turning writing social for a month.




  • Reference Desk, Plot Doctoring, Adoption Society, NaNo Artisans, ...
  • Based on discourse


  • See events:
  • Dueling trains, Nov 9th
    • Lunch afterwards at the Greek Isles
  • Two Brothers Roundhouse Write-in
  • All Day Write-In Nov 16th
  • Mid-month meetup afterwards
  • November 30th last day
  • TGIO pot-luck lunch Dec 7th

Prep workshops

Writing Journey

  • Year round writing group:
    • Editing/Accountability
    • Critiquing Path
    • Short story anthology
    • Monthly meetings with workshops

Write-ins at ... ?

  • Plano Library?

Actions and reactions: emotional chemistry to drive your plot forward

  • slides
  • K. D. Garcia
  • Intermediate level; assuming that everyone understands plots, the three act structure, characterization, character's journey
  • A simple technique and process
  • References
    • Donald Maass - The emotional craft of fiction (Donald is a great workshop presenter)
    • Lisa Cron - Story Genius
    • Dwight Swain - Secrets of the Selling Author
      • Heard that what Kelly did is very similar to Dwight
    • Kelly has a PhD in neuroscience; this method has something to do with biology.
  • You can have great characters and plot but the novel can fall flat if no emotional resonance.

Good fiction

  • We can recognize it when we see it
  • Not the perfect plot or character but it sucks you into the page; you believe you're there.
  • A romance reader feels the thrill of falling in love.
  • In a thriller, the reader should feel mortal danger.
  • Fantasy: the reader experiences the entire world and are caught up in it.

Winning and losing scenes

  • Critique partners will say: this is the greatest thing ever. Or meh.
  • It's not a matter of tension or plot or characters; where is it that I'm losing these readers?
  • Went home and ripped apart pages from my favorite novels and outlined what authors were doing.
  • What I found was a simple pattern used almost uniformly.
  • The human brain is wired to recognize patterns. It's how we're built.
  • Babies smile when they see a face that smiles.
  • We have a response to when we see a face or a house.
  • Mirror neuron - if you watch me hit my knee, your similar neurons are triggered; you experience that. If you describe how you cut yourself, others will feel something (empathy). We experience their emotions and reactions.
    • This is the foundation of the secret formula authors use.


  • This is one little tool in your tool box
  • This is not the only tool you'll ever need
  • Writing a novel is hard; you need to understand plot, characterization, deep point of view, ...
  • This is not the ONE way to add emotion to a story. It is presented as one possible way.

The Formula

  • Character + an action or external force = show a reaction from the character (the emotional punch)
  • On paper:
    • a character + gun shot = ducks or shoots back
    • a character + snow storm = runs outside or he makes a fire
  • In fiction, if you can stimulate those mirror neurons with description, you can make the reader feel those emotional reactions.
  • You get to know those characters from their reactions.
  • How does that character react? It tells you a lot about that character.

Humans are hard wired

  • Mirror neurons - when you see or hear about someone or something, you react.
  • We own a natural response to various actions. We are hard-wired to do.
  • We also own a judgement of the character's reactions.
    • this gives you a way to manipulate your readers
    • action -> character reaction -> reader judgement call (internal reaction)
  • For example: if in a romance, a girl falls for an abusive narcissist, we think she's foolish and we feel scared.
    • or if a girl dumpa a prince, we feel she is foolish and we grow frustrated

Scene structure

  • Goal: what your POV character wants at the beginning of the scene. Must be specific and it must be clearly defined.
  • Conflict: Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching his Goal.
    • you need to throw obstacles in your character's path
  • Disaster: a failure to let your POV character reach his Goal. Winning is boring!

How to buildd a scene

  • C + A1 = R1
  • C + A2 = R2
  • C + A3 = R3
  • Scee accomplished


  • Take your WIP, edit it to follow these steps in and over, you will maximize emotion on the page
  • Plotting too rigidly, sucks all the life out.
  • You could use this as an editing tool.


  • Example: J. K. Rowling
    • Mr. Dursley doesn't believe, the cat is fantastical
    • everything J. K. Rowling writes is action->reaction


  • Lucy was totally and hopelessly in love! She had met a dazzling young man at the country dance last night - his name was Bert - and Lucy could scarcely think straight, such was the intensity of her emotion.
  • no action or reaction, no emotional response
  • one problem is show vs. tell
  • action and reaction requires SHOWING

Show vs. Tell

  • Telling
    • She was cold
  • Showing
    • The wind burned her cheeks.
  • When actions are shown, they bring the reader into the character's life.

Example of shows but missing emotions

  • Anna Blanche dashed out of the huge building at the corner of the street and skipped across the busy intersection. She could feel her heart thumping in her chest - loud enough to seem as if it was coming from her ears. Her eyes were wild as she looked behind her several times.
  • We're wired to look at actions and processed them, not to process internal thoughts.
  • Emotional chemistry
    • character
    • add in an action, external force
    • see the character's internal reaction

Example: Jennifer Weiner's GOOD IN BED

  • Action: MC reads a terrible thing
  • Reaction: MC hears blood roaring in her ears

Example - Tom Clancy's Support and Defend

  • Action: first sight of land in four days
  • Reaction: One: ingression phase of his operation had succeeded. Two: The time had come to slit the captain's throat.
  • The MC is a badass dude--you know it

Example - Rachel Vincent's the Menagerie

  • Charity can't get her baby to stop crying for a full three hours
  • She leaves the baby crying inside and goes outside for a break.
  • The last ice cube melted (ACTION)
  • Reader feels despair
  • REACTION: Charity: "Won't you take this angry child and give me a quieter, happier one in her place."
  • Show the action. See her reaction. You won't ever forget it.

Example: Hagrid kissing baby Harry goodbye after Harry's parents are killed

  • As I write, I think: action, reaction. It has become a habit very quickly. You don't have to worry about show/tell or passive voice. It is a really simple habit to get into.
  • Eliminating passive voice
    • if you're focused on the action, then the reaction, it will help you get out of the passive voice
    • it will also put you into the deeper point of view


  • Build a scene with Harriet

    Harriet coughed softly. The two men kept talking. Harriet coughed again, much more loudly. Bennet glanced at Harriet, noticing her, but didn't interrupt Mr. Boss. Harriet stepped to the side, into Mr. Boss's line of sight. She raised her editorial. Did Bennet's mouth twitch upwards into a slight smile? "Mr. Boss," she said. Mr. Boss stopped speaking and turned his cool gaze to Harriet. "Yes?" Harriet licked her lips which felt dry. "I, ah, finished my editorial." "That's fine, you can leave it on my desk." Bennet's smile had found its way into his triumphant gaze. "I had an idea for how we might handle the ransom note," she said. Her cheeks heated up. She forced herself not to wilt on the spot.

  • You can get the setting in the sentence too.

  • You need a hook, you need action.

  • Tim: Suggest reading Karl Iglesias: Writing for Emotional Impact

  • Q: How do you manipulate the reader's emotions?
    • A: Every person in the room will have the same gut reaction if they're in a crowd and everyone hears a first shot.
    • A: Go with your gut on the emotional response.
  • Comment: You don't know the reader's emotional reaction. E.g., the Time Traveler's Wife. I had weird emotional reactions to things. But it was memorable (provoked a reaction).

  • Comment: Part of it is who is your character; if you know it and how he/she would react in that situation, then we have a more empathetic response (if I care about her, then when she is put in risk, then I can get caught up in that).
  • Comment: It is the reaction that draws the punchline, not the events that are happening; it's their understanding of the character's response.
    • A: It's both. You don't have to see the response sometimes.
  • Q: How she felt with Jonah and the Whale (the MENAGERIE); seems liked a cliche. Pulled me out a little bit (over used).
    • A: Unless you twist the cliche, then it can be annoying and you lose that punch.
  • The reaction, the way they think, should tell you characterization. It's what you do in your own life--there are people you want to know. You are finding affinity with people who behave like you do. It's how you are wired.

Round table

  • Jenny - GwenTolios - co-ML, helping to coordinate events
    • theme is time travel
    • making the transition from SF/Fantasy to contemporary
  • Marie
    • fairy tale, professional story teller, getting into narrative
    • 10 years ago lost only child David by CoE
    • personal narrative is so difficult
  • Meg
    • recent transplant from Seattle
    • haven't done any writing in 8 years (life had other plans) but was doing scientific editing
    • looking forward at getting back to writing
    • wrote out the entire novel 15 years ago, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell; getting back to it now
  • Dave, SW developer in Naperville
    • not a professional writer but have a novel burning inside of me
    • new to NaNo (wanted to do it last year); did too much planning last year
  • Kevin
    • public health research for the past six years, writing research and data
    • wanting to write since HS but didn't get the chance to.
    • have attempted NaNo a few times, but haven't gotten beyond a few hundred words
  • Anna - analyst for Illinois lottery by trade
    • English/history major; want to get back to this
    • original goal: write a romance novel; used random plot generator -> goofy whodunit thriller
  • Jim
    • retired elementary teacher; had some rental properties (sold the last one in December)
    • now want to give a shot at writing
    • want to write children's (picture book or YA)
  • Tanasha - fifth year with NaNo
    • write SF/Fantasy
    • this NaNo a new book but not a new idea
  • Leslie - ten years ago, was watching hoarders and wanted to write a book living in a hoarded house
    • was researching and found out about professional organizing, did a business in professional organizing
    • last year was NaNo, learned that writing is external
    • wrote 50K words of case studies with organizing clients (a book being edited)
    • this NaNo will revisit the book I started 10 years ago
    • going back to school, working on a PhD
  • Catherine
    • have been doing this for several years
    • really enjoy it. Wanting to finish a novel.
    • This year: I have a setting and time period, seeking a protagonist
  • Kelly Garcia
    • I don't participate in NaNo; the pressure makes me kind of ... anyway
    • I write habitually, every single day
    • I write romantic suspense and YA (self-published)
    • one series about a woman who finds war dogs
  • Jennifer Bailey
    • on and off with NaNo since 2012, haven't been successful
    • a pantser; last year was the closest. Finished a book (wrote 40K)
    • YA romance, 9 books published, two more on submission
    • NaNo rebel
  • Stephanie Scott
    • We're all RWA.
    • YA book for NaNo (rebel, start it ahead of time)
    • more the publishing aspect (the hurdle of getting an agent (I have one), then dealing with rejection)
    • Romance writers are very prolific; looking forward to this year's NaNo to get the ove of writing back
  • Sam
    • wrote seven novels, Barnyard Heroes
    • working and editing the whole series
    • this year will do something else