The Reaction Shot

wheatonI have a little bit of theater in my past. From around age 14 to maybe 20, my passion for theater and for writing were about the same. One effect of having a theater background is that I’m in the habit, when watching a performance, of thinking about how it applies to writing. The one I’ve been noticing most recently is the reaction shot.


In a particularly effective scene, think about, instead of the actor who is doing the thing, the one who is reacting to it. This is always the key to fight scenes: stage combat (I love stage combat) is 90% about reacting to attacks. But it applies more broadly. For example, I’ve just re-watched Leverage, one of my favorite shows. If you watch the episodes where Wil Wheaton guest stars, watch how many scenes he sells by reacting. There is one spectacular example in “The Last Dam Job,” where we believe in the taser because of how he sells being tased. Another great example is in The Martian. One of the more delightful scenes in a movie full of delightful scenes is the one where the crew is finally in touch again with the stranded astronaut. There is some splendid and real-sounding banter between friends (“We have to take turns doing your tasks, but I mean, it’s only botany, it’s not real science.”), which is both well written and well performed between the actors; but what really makes the scene work is the way the rest of the crew, listening to the conversation, reacts to it. For a third example, I’ve been watching some old episodes of the original Mission: Impossible, and watching Martin Landau react, and noticing how much that carries a scene, is fascinating. (As a side note, Landau is one of my favorite actors; if you ever get the chance, catch his appearance on Inside the Actor’s Stuido. He talks about acting the way we process geeks talk about writing.)


Do I have to spell out how this relates to writing? No, but I will anyway, because I’m a pedantic son of a bitch. Check out how easy it is to change the emotional content of a scene just by the reaction of someone not directly involved  in the action.

“Okay,” I said, letting a dagger fall into my hand. “We can do it that way if you want.”
He kept his face expressionless. Behind him, the bodyguard folded his arms and smirked.


“Okay,” I said, letting a dagger fall into my hand.  “We can do it that way if you want.”
He kept his face expressionless. Behind him, the bodyguard leaned forward a little, hands twitching.

Or, this.

He held out his arm, and she took it. Her friend glanced at them and gritted her teeth.


He held out his arm, and she took it. Her friend glanced at them, then looked away, suppressing a smile.

Now of course, point of view is at the heart of this, as it is at the heart of everything. But paying attention to the reaction of those who are not directly involved in the action can accomplish a lot with very little effort.

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18 thoughts on “The Reaction Shot”

  1. I appreciate the pedantry!

    Megan and I have an ongoing discussion of people who ‘act with their faces’ – I mean, ideally that’s everyone, but what we’re talking about is a lot of reaction shots, a lot of times where someone’s expression carries more meaning and nuance than the dialogue. Scenes where the person ‘saying’ the most never opens their mouth blow me away. Gillian Anderson in the first several seasons of the X-Files is a great example – we generally take Mulder exactly as seriously as she does, even if we know, structurally, that he’s probably right and she’s probably wrong. Or, if you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Inspector Jack Robinson’s amusement, disapproval, exasperation, and curiosity are all unvoiced, and all managed without twitching his damn lips, but from the angle of inclination of his head or the lift of an eyebrow, we receive relative paragraphs of data.

  2. Very good. I love watching peripheral actors on stage.

    A similar thing is when someone in the background is doing something different – but essential. My favorite example of this is in the movie Shane, where the landowner is giving a monologue on how picked upon he is – while in the background the two gunslingers are sizing each other up. Wonderful scene.

  3. The bodyguard leaned forward, hands twitching, and then fell over in a full on seizure.

  4. Matt: Yes, exactly–that’s a classic case of “less is more.” A subtle facial expression is asking the viewer to do a little more work to put together what it means, and the work the viewer puts in make it hit harder.

    howard: Excellent example. The contrast in tone between foreground and background, when the viewer is more interested in the background, emphasis it. Thanks for the pointing that out.

  5. I’ll play. I love the scene in The Usual Suspects when all the main cast members are in a lineup at the police station, and are asked to step forward and read a line off of a card. Apparently director Bryan Singer was trying to get them to play it straight, but Del Toro and Baldwin were hamming it up so much that the rest of them could not stop cracking up. One of those laughing takes made it into the film, and it was inadvertantly perfect. Here are these five hardened guys, total unintimidated by a situation that would scare the bejeebers out of 99% of the population.

  6. Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors, does an amazing job at selling a really ridiculous role in True Romance. But if Samuel Jackson does not sell accepting Oldman’s character as everyday reality, then the scene melts into vaguely racist goo.

    Later, Gandolfini sells a ridiculous plot point by reacting to Patricia Arquette’s desperate bravado with a terrifying mix of school boy crush and sadistic glee. It’s hard to imagine anyone in his situation doing what he does, but you can believe that this one unique individual would react to Arquette like this.

  7. Speaking of movies do this and Gary Oldman, absolutely everything in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy completely depends on straight faced man acting with their cheekbones.

  8. Very good! And the sad thing is when the writer throws away the opportunity for an interesting reaction that can illuminate character with a routine connection to the next bit of dialog or action.

  9. I appreciate this as an actor and writer. Knowing what to do when you’re not the one with the line is an essential element of laying out a scene. I like the transference of this to the world of writing.

  10. It seems to me there is much more leeway for secondary (or even lesser) characters to add to a scene in a visual medium. One of my favorite bits in Empire Strikes Back is when Piett is promoted to Admiral. There’s a tech sitting at a console in the background, sort of eyeing Ozzel as he goes down, then he gives a half nervous/half curious glance at Vader on the comm screen at the end. It was an amusing way to show just how casual they could be about that sort of dismissal. But in print, unless he had at least a little part in the plot, I don’t think his reaction would have added to the story at all.

    In your examples, I feel the smirking bodyguard would actually detract from the scene unless he did something in addition to smirk. It could have been before, like having met the protagonist at the door and said/done something, or during the scene, but without a personality behind the reaction, it feels flat. On the other hand, in the second example, it’s safe to assume the he & she are important characters, and the grimacer/smiler is known to the reader and has already been a part of the story, so that sounds more natural. Contrast that with an old woman in a movie smiling at a couple walking past her, or frowning at a pair being overly affectionate, and no matter who she is it can add to the atmosphere, even if she says nothing and is never seen again.

    I guess I feel that in print, the narrative voice, rather than a character, should convey the effect that reacting characters do when acting. As an example, one of the more succinct explication of a character in print was in “Plot It Yourself”, a Nero Wolfe story, in which Archie says, “I had noted glances directed at her…which led me to suspect that in a national poll to choose the Secretary of the Year the book publishers’ vote would not go to Cora Ballard, and her return glances indicated she most certainly wouldn’t want it to.” If he had instead said “Ballard sniffed disdainfully at the publishers”, he would have conveyed a totally different impression of the character, one that wouldn’t have fit with the rest of her (very minor) part in the story.

  11. I was thinking this while watching the original “Ocean’s 11” last weekend. Peter Lawford was talking on the phone saying how he needed some money and he was joking that he was going to use the money to paper the walls. The part that made the scene funny for me was Dean Martin’s reaction to the statement. He looked around the room, like he was thinking how that would look. I didn’t think the joke itself was funny, but Dean’s reaction sold it to me.

  12. L. Raymond, your example is a first-person observation by the character…namely, Archie Goodwin. That voice you’re talking about is his, and in those stories he IS a character reacting, not a narrative voice.

  13. Yes, I’m definitely a fan of how you write your action scenes. The writing and dramatic aspects aren’t something I can speak to, but in terms of the technicalities, I don’t think you’ve ever embarrassed yourself. I just know I enjoy reading what you write.

    Another writer who writes great action, but who does it differently from you, is KJ Parker. He’s either done some form of swordplay himself or else has researched the subject thoroughly. The version of swordplay he presents in his novels is comprehensive, and usually includes descriptions of “traditional” swordplay. What’s great is that his descriptions are transparent enough that people who don’t know anything about swordplay won’t notice how authentic the picture he presents is.

  14. Ms. Bull, I’d argue he serves the same purpose in the book that the camera does for the screen. That is, what he comments on forces the reader to be aware of a certain subject, just like the camera forces the viewer to see what’s on the screen. Just as the writer decides whether a character sniffs, laughs or glares at someone else, the director decides if the scene will be brightly lit, shaded, hazy – in other words, determines the effect on the viewer, like the author’s word choice does for the reader. An understated description of a character would then be analogous to a reaction shot – a nuance you might or might not pick up on when reading it.

  15. @Jilin: Oh, good recommendation. I adore KJ Parker for many reasons, one of which is that they most definitely have done their homework. (I believe they have actually /made/ swords in addition to using them.) (One could argue that they Show Their Working a little /too/ verbosely, but I personally love that kind of intimate detail; Parker manages to make even swords, which fundamentally bore me, interesting and significant.)

  16. @Herm: Yes, his books are great, aren’t they? Some of them (which I’ve read) are a little on the dreary side, but I keep an eye out for anything that shows up at either second-hand book shops or the “New Releases” shelf of Barnes and Noble. Note: Parker revealed recently he’s actually Tom Holt writing under a pseudonym.

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