Add reaction shots to heighten dramatic tension

Description in your stories shouldn’t be limited to landscapes and introductions of characters. While most description in a story will be devoted to those purposes, there are other times when a single phrase or line of description can be inserted amid action and dialogue with great effectiveness.

One such insertion is known as a “reaction shot.” A term commonly used in science fiction workshops and critiques, a reaction shot is a cut away from the narrative to show a character’s emotional response. Consider this example from Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert’s short story “Stray”:

“You smoke?”

Ivan blinked up at him. What was this? “I have,” he said.

The description of Ivan blinking up at the speaker is an example of a reaction shot. It provides insight into Ian’s character by showing his surprise that another would treat him in a friendly manner.

Such cutaways are natural to readers of today, primarily because we see it all the time in movies and television programs. Indeed, the term comes from the filming industry.

When utilizing a reaction shot, be sure to follow a couple of guidelines. First, the character cut away to is the main character. It’s his emotional responses and insights into his personality that most interest readers. Secondly, don’t cut away to an obvious emotional reaction, such as laughing at a joke. If you do, you risk slowing the story. Be selective with reaction shots, using them to further the dramatic tension.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.