Jane Austen Shows Us How It’s Done

Lately I’ve been noticing a recurring problem in the story manuscripts I’ve been reading: The authors are so busy moving the story forward that they forget to show how other characters are reacting to what’s going on.

For example, I just read a story about an ex-con who’s back in society and working full-time. He talks to a co-worker very sincerely about the ways that he’s matured over the years. When he finishes, she dismisses him with a cynical comment.

The story would make more sense if we had a couple of glimpses of the co-worker while the ex-con is talking. The writer could describe her facial expressions to let us know that she’s not buying what he’s saying. Then the rejection at the end would make more sense.

Here are three reasons why you should strive to include reactions when you write a story:

  • You’re helping readers keep track of your characters
  • You can use the reactions to develop characters
  • The story will make more sense

To show how this works, I’ve copied some dialogue from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the excerpt below, I’ve omitted the reactions from the other characters. Then I’ve copied the dialogue again, this time with the reactions included (they’re in blue so that you can identify them). Notice how much better the incident reads the second time.

Here’s the situation: The younger Bennett girls have been getting to know some soldiers who have been posted to their neighborhood. The girls are full of giggles, to their father’s dismay.

They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.

After listening one morning to their effusions on this subject, Mr. Bennet coolly observed,—

‘From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced.’

‘I am astonished, my dear,’ said Mrs. Bennet, ‘that you should be so ready to think your own children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of anybody’s children, it should not be of my own, however.’

‘If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it.’

‘Yes; but as it happens, they are all of them very clever.’

Here’s the dialogue again, with the girls’ reactions included:

They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.

After listening one morning to their effusions on this subject, Mr. Bennet coolly observed,—

‘From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced.’

Catherine was disconcerted, and made no answer; but Lydia, with perfect indifference, continued to express her admiration of Captain Carter, and her hope of seeing him in the course of the day, as he was going the next morning to London.

‘I am astonished, my dear,’ said Mrs. Bennet, ‘that you should be so ready to think your own children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of anybody’s children, it should not be of my own, however.’

‘If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it.’

‘Yes; but as it happens, they are all of them very clever.’

Notice: You got to know the daughters (Lydia and Catherine) a little better, the dialogue flowed better, and – most important – you could see for yourself what Mr. Bennett was talking about. Jane Austen was on to something here – try it yourself in your next short story.

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