8

When a character does something suddenly, how can I show this instead of just telling the reader they did it "without thinking"?

Like: "Without thinking, I jumped." Or: “Without thinking, I unbuckled my seatbelt.”

3
  • 3
    Just use thesaurus.com. You could use this link as a starting point: thesaurus.com/browse/naturally
    – Nai45
    Dec 7 '20 at 16:14
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    What about just "I jumped." ? In context, the 'without thinking' should come across. Dec 7 '20 at 16:49
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    "Impulsively, the heroine leapt into the fight, quickly defeating the Patriarchy, leaving Gaia safe for Mothers everywhere."
    – RonJohn
    Dec 10 '20 at 4:23
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Start with understanding what character motivation or complication you want to describe. "Without Thinking..." can imply a huge range of motivations or complications from instinctive reaction or subconscious information, to trained muscle memory or rash foolishness.

Once you've settled on why the character's reasons, then you relate it.

If your character is doing something stupid: "I jumped, instantly regretting my impulsiveness, ...."

If your character is reacting according to centuries of ninja training: "I jumped, the blade trap swished through empty air, before I ever saw the broken trip wire."

If your character is reacting to instinctive drives: "I jumped, and felt foolish, it was a length of rope, not a snake."

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"Without thinking, I jumped."

When you talk in the first person, you are bound to their experiences and observations.

If they jumped without thinking about it, that means either the first thing they observed is that they jumped, without any further explanation of what happened inbetween:

I jumped

...or they suddenly found themselves mid-jump, because they hadn't been thinking before they started jumping:

I suddenly found myself jumping towards the falling tree.

or

Before I could reconsider, I had already jumped off the platform.

or

Hitting the ground, I immediately tumbled and fell face-first. Did I really just jump out of that moving car?

Additionally, when you do things without rationally thinking about them, that means that your response was either reflexive or instinctive (the two are similar but subtly different).

You can use that to your advantage here:

In that moment, I had no fear. I didn't think it through. I wasn't even sure why I was doing it, or what would happen. But my legs just told me to jump, and so I did.

or

Before the car's tires screeched and it veered of the road, I was already jumping out of the way. I guess I've got years of dodgeball practice to thank for that.

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Here's some options;

Instinctively 'Before I even registered the spear headed my way, I instinctively jumped out of the way. '

Subconsciously 'I had been practicing so long that I subconsciously grabbed the arrow out of the air. '

Immediately 'I saw the incoming projectile, and immediately got out of the way'(this one implies some thinking but is still good)

And maybe more that you can find on thesaurus.com.

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    Reflexively also works.
    – hszmv
    Dec 7 '20 at 16:11
  • @hszmv possibly, but a reflex is a quite particular kind of response. It would be very odd to unbuckle one's seatbelt by reflex. (Also, the word has the rather extreme ambiguity that it can also mean “after much reflection”.) Dec 9 '20 at 15:15
  • @leftaroundabout For me, unbuckling my seatbelt is a reflex that I do whenever I get out of my car. I don't put much thought into it as it's so ingrained, I don't need too.
    – hszmv
    Dec 9 '20 at 15:24
  • @hszmv you're using the word wrong then. Subconscious actions like that are still directed by the brain, otherwise they'd not only trigger when you're about to get out of the car. Reflexes, by contrast, happen in direct response to a sensory stimulus, without brain involvement. (It could possibly be a reflex that your hand presses the button as soon as your fingers have found the buckle, but that's not what you would mean by “reflexively unbuckled the belt”.) Dec 9 '20 at 15:38
  • @leftaroundabout and you are failing to reading the OP's question wrong. He wants actions that occur without thinking about them. Not actions that require no brain activity at all. Subconcious actions, fall on this catagory because a person is capable of doing things without giving active thought to them even if there is brain activity.
    – hszmv
    Dec 9 '20 at 15:59
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Depends on how close your point of view is.

Without thinking, I jumped

depicts your narrator retrospectively recounting an event that happened, with enough distance to comment on the lack of thought. A closer point of view would recount the narrator's impressions as they happened, such as

From the top of the garden wall, I surveyed the forest, and realized that Smith was there, pointing a gun at me. The garden ground hit with jarring force. I kept to my feet, but my heart hammered.

where the narrator didn't even realize the intention to jump -- just jumped and felt hitting the ground hard.

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A few options depending on exactly where you're going:

To imply it bypasses higher brain functions:

Actually, the other answers here are covering this one pretty well (unconsciously/subconsciously/instinctively/reflexively/impulsively)

I'll add instantly...

You can also say the character realized (afterwards) they did something, like:

I looked at my hand and realized I had fired the gun.

A lot of these also apply to emotive reactions rather than conscious ones. I'll add:

Viscerally...

emotionally...

If you want to imply they aren't paying attention:

Absently...

Describe the character's gaze as unfocused or distant.

Say the person had done the same thing three or four times.three or four times.three or four times. three or four times.

The character can stop in the middle of doing something and just sit there for X amount of time.

They can idly pick at something.

They can poke themselves with something and be startled.

They can sing tunelessly or hum.

They can be obviously doing the task wrong.

They can keep failing at a simple task.

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You could simply not describe her thinking about or doing that particular thing. Since you'll give a clue about her thinking on most activities, the ones where you don't will stand out. "Hmmm...", Jenna mused, "I want to get your mom something simple", a pause as she weaved through a parade, "but I don't want to...", she paused again for the crash as she dropped it back onto 4 wheels, "...don't want to overdo it". She spoke louder as she squealed the city-bus through a smugglers' turn, "MAYBE A THROW-RUG??"

Few words are spent on her driving, letting us know she isn't thinking about it much. Or more simply, when athletics are called for Nancy Drew kicks off her flats. Obviously she undoes the straps, pulls off her shoes with one hand, and sets them down where she can find them again. But describing it in 4 words lets us know how automatic that is to her.

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Just show what she might have thought. You can vary the length of that thought as your story needs it at this moment. For an example if you just want to show how some things became a routine over the years, or something changed in the behavior of a character you can just write:

A year ago I would have been worried about the altitude and the wet ground I'm supposed to land on. But today I'm not. I just jump.

But if you want to show that there is actually something at stake here or that your character is acting against all his believes or instincts you can include a lot more backstory. For example show a mother which has a baby and a loving husband waiting for her at home. A loving family that means the world to her. (insert more reasons she should stay with her family here) But she can not think about it now. She just jumps in the arms of this charming stranger.

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One way to show that the action was taken without giving it much thought is to describe the consequences before the action itself:

Original:

I heard the distinctive sound of a flint wheel. Without thinking, I jumped. I felt a pipe hitting my ribs. As I lay on the ground I heard rumbling in my ears but there was no explosion.

vs

I heard the distinctive sound of a flint wheel. I felt a pipe hitting my ribs. As I lay on the ground I heard rumbling in my ears but there was no explosion. I had only jumped.

In action scenes this can help build the tension by leaving the reader momentarily guessing what exactly has happened.

But it can work just as well in a more mundane scenes to show the lack of deliberation on the narrator's part:

I was bitching about my mom not letting me go to the party and thoughtlessly mentioned: "But you're lucky though - no one can tell what to do anymore!". Anne's face suddenly grew pale and she stared daggers at my skull. I heard Bob saying: "Dude! Not cool!"

vs

I was bitching about my mom not letting me go to the party when Anne's face suddenly grew pale and she stared daggers at my skull. I heard Bob saying: "Dude! Not cool!" What had come out of my mouth was: "But you're lucky though - no one can tell what to do anymore!"

This should also work in a more distant third person narration (played here for humor):

Andrew Willifred Smith stumbled out of his bed, grumbled a greeting to the rug (the cat was away), made himself a tea and mindlessly poured it straight into the bin. He stared at the light brown liquid swirling in the black bag for exactly 57 seconds before muttering "Just my kind of day!"

vs

Andrew Willifred Smith stumbled out of his bed and grumbled a greeting to the rug (the cat was away). Then he stared at a light brown liquid swirling in a black bag for exactly 57 seconds. He had made himself a tea and poured it straight into the bin. "Just my kind of day!" he muttered.

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It depends on your viewpoint. Is this first-person past tense, or first person stream-of-conciousness?

It it is present tense, then you can say "without thinking, I ..." because that isn't what you would hear on your inner dialogue.

If it is first present past tense, then you can apply value judgements and self-interpretation to the actions.

In other words, is the story more.like watching a video with a cranial tap into the protagonist's brain, or is it the protagonist telling a story with the benefit of consideration and hindsight?

With that clear, you will know how to proceed.

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