Throw The Cow Over The Fence Some Hay

Have you ever heard someone say something backwards? (Confession—sometimes I do. It’s like my mind is racing faster than my mouth, and my words can’t keep up.)

Sometimes when I write, my characters say and do things out of order, too. I notice it when I go back to edit, and it makes me laugh. But knowing what to look for is key.

Not sure what I’m talking about?

Think about this:  When your character reacts to a new situation he or she goes through a pattern of emotional responses. This change in situation causes a change in your character’s emotional balance. The stimuli creates a reaction.

Let me explain by giving the girls a visual. (Guys, your example is below.) Hopefully this is something you can relate to. See this guy in the photo? He’s kind of hot, wouldn’t you say? Let’s pretend he’s a new kid at school, and you’ve just been introduced to him. What would happen if he approached you after biology class and said, “What are you doing Friday night?” (This is a change in your normal balance. You were walking along like you ordinarily do, but he knocked you out of your typical controlled-looking persona.)

Most likely you’d FEEL something first. Excited, embarrassed, joy. Your cheeks might turn hot. Your heart might flutter. Or your stomach might flip-flop. But one thing’s for sure–you’d FEEL something.

Next, you’d probably DO something. Maybe smile, or pause to see if he was talking to you, or trip in the hall. But there’d be an ACTION.

Lastly, you’d say something. SPEECH (If you could find your voice.) “Ah, sure.” or “Me?” or “Sorry, I have a date that night.” (Please tell me you wouldn’t say that.)

If you use these three things–FEEL, ACTION, SPEECH in this order it’ll give your writing a stream of reality. It’s the normal sequence of events after something or someone has changed your normal situation. One thing follows another. You wouldn’t pull your finger back from a hot stove before you placed it there, would you?

Do you have to include all three every time? No. Your character could feel an emotion and say something without moving. Or he could feel a certain way and do something without talking, too. But if you’re going to show all three of these it’s best to keep them in this order–in the order the character experiences them. And not all at one time.

Get it?

Okay, let me give the guys an example.

You work at an auto supply store and this girl (to your left) comes into the store while you’re working the front counter. She’s visibly upset. Black mascara runs down her face in tear streaks. She butts in line, leans against the counter, and says, “My car died in the street.” She points out the front door. “My grandma is dying. I need to get to the hospital! Will you help me?”

First you would FEEL something. (Please tell me you would feel something!) You might feel sorry for her, or you might be annoyed  because there are ten other customers waiting in line, and you’re the only one working the register. Or you might feel excited, a rush of adrenaline–this is your chance to win the girl. You’ve noticed her at school and wanted her to notice you. Now is your chance. Your heart races.

Next, you would DO something (ACTION). Like: Glance toward the street to see if she’s blocking traffic. Or, look at how many people are in line. Or, run your fingers through your hair. Clench your jaw. Smile. Look for someone to cover for you. Or you could furrow your brows, wrinkle your forehead, roll your eyes–but you’d do something.

Finally, you’d SAY something. (SPEECH) Like, “Hey Mike, will you cover the register for me?” Or you might say to her, “Can’t you see I’m busy right now? Call a tow truck.” Or, “I’m getting off work in two minutes. I’ll push your car out of the way and take you, if you’d like.”

The trick is to show that one thing happens at a time. Show what happens when your character reacts to change by writing it in a natural sequence. Motivation MUST precede action. You must explain how your character feels to give him/her a reason for their action. If our hardware guy wants to help this girl the reader needs to see what motivates him before he helps her. If all things happen at one time it’s confusing.

Using this technique will create feelings in your reader, and give you a way to show your character’s personality.

What would you feel, do or say in these situations?


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  1. Great hook. As a dyed-in-the-wool teacher for many years, I love your knack for connecting, inspiring and encouraging youth.

    • Thanks Delores. That makes me smile. I hope so. I’m really enjoying this blog and have met so many talented teens who need encouragement. It’s exciting.

  2. Love your examples!

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