Stimulus and Response 101

by James Scott Bell

What’s wrong with this sentence, from an old pulp novel:

I lit a cigarette and shoved it in my mouth.

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? The action is backwards. You shove a nail in the mouth before you light it. The sentence as written is a speed bump, taking the reader out of the story for a moment.

Which is why your prose needs the right order. That’s what stimulus-response transactions are about.

The craft book that really got me going on the road to sales was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. In the chapter “Stimulus and Response” Bickham explains: The principle is simple…When you show a stimulus, you must show a response. When you want a certain response, you must show a stimulus that will cause it. Following this simple pattern, you will begin to write copy that makes good sense, and steams along like a locomotive.

So you don’t write: Bob hit the dirt, hearing the explosion. The reader sees the response before the stimulus, and has to backtrack to make sense of it. Instead: Bob heard the explosion. He hit the dirt or some variation of same.

Further, the response needs to be close to the stimulus so the transaction is not obscure. Not: Bob heard the explosion. The day was warm, the sky clear. But storm clouds were coming over the mountains. He hit the dirt.

This is so basic most of you follow the right pattern. But little mix-ups can happen, like typos. Train your eye to find them in your prose and fix them.

A bit more troublesome is the “complex” transaction. That’s where the reader needs to know why a character responds the way she does. For example:

Susan collected her mail and went inside her house, screaming and crying.

Wait, what did we miss? The stimulus that caused her to scream and cry. Like something in one of the letters. Perhaps the news that her mother just died. Whatever it is, it has to be strong enough to cause that response. So you write a line or two about Susan opening a letter and reading the news (stimulus) and then she screams (response).

Another way to show a complex transaction is through internalization. Bickham uses the following example:

“Will you marry me, Cindy?” Joe asked.

Cindy hit him with her beer bottle.

Unless you’re purposely writing a surprise (which is fine. Joe can then ask, “Hey, why’d you do that?” and Cindy can tell him), you use an internalization to bridge the gap.

(Stimulus) “Will you marry me, Cindy?” Joe asked.

(Internalization) The question shocked her. She had prayed for just such a proposal for two years. But now, on the same day she had accepted Reggie’s proposal, it was horrible for Joe finally to ask. Instant rage flooded through her.

(Response) She hit him with her beer bottle.

We can also widen this principle to story events that force the Lead to respond.

Before we do, I’d like to take a moment to explain why I don’t like the term “inciting incident.” You hear it a lot from writing teachers. But what you hear is often ambiguous or contradictory.

Some say it’s the event that “spins the plot in a different direction.”

Some say it occurs at the beginning of your story. Others say no, that’s the hook, and the inciting incident happens later to set the character on the “narrative journey.”

But I say every incident in your plot should incite some response, or it shouldn’t be in there.

Thus, for structure purposes, I prefer to emphasize the Disturbance (to open the novel) and The Doorway of No Return, the event that forces the Lead into the death stakes of Act 2.

But in every scene I write I have in mind what Bickham and Dwight Swain called “scene and sequel.” Again, this is stimulus-response on a larger scale.

After a scene ends in “disaster” (as most scenes should) the character has an emotional beat that roughly follows this pattern: emotion, analysis, decision.

That’s just like life, isn’t it? A wife announces she wants a divorce, and leaves the house, slamming the door behind her (disaster). Husband is stunned, shattered, confused (emotion). He thinks, Now what am I going to do? As he pours himself a drink, he goes over his options—beg her to come back? Lawyer up? Murder? Think about it tomorrow, for tomorrow is another day? (analysis). Finally, he makes up his mind what to do (decision…which leads to the next action).

It was learning this from Bickham’s book that led to my big epiphany about what was weak in my fiction, and how to fix it. After that, I started to sell.

The nice thing about reaction beats is that they are flexible. When the emotion is strong, you can spend time on it. You control pace largely through emotional beats. If you want to keep a fast pace, the beat can be short—even just one line of internal thought. Or it can be skipped altogether and implied—we see in the subsequent action what went on inside the character.

The point is that you should know the steps—emotion, analysis, decision—inside your character. Then you can render them how you wish.

No less a writer than Jim Butcher has said that his sequels are the key to the popularity of his Harry Dresden character.

Stimulus-Response. Scene-Sequel. These are the pistons that power your fiction.

Now that I have hopefully stimulated your thinking, I invite your responses.

30 thoughts on “Stimulus and Response 101

  1. A common thing I see when I edit manuscripts is what you might call “stimulus-diluted response.” These aren’t verbatim examples but ones synthesized from a decade-plus of experience:

    “There was an explosion, and he found his legs responding as he started to run”

    “There was an explosion, and his body shook with adrenaline and fear as he found his legs starting to run.”

    “There was an explosion, and thoughts of Mary flooded his brain and body, nearly paralyzing him with adrenaline and fear, as his legs moved of their own accord and he started to run.”

    I think what happens is that some writers think it’s more stimulating or thrilling if the emotion, analysis and decision happen at once and the body somehow sorts out its own instinctive response from all of that. Like an internal hero separating itself from the pack and distinguishing itself by the complexity and speed of his brain and body sorting through a database of possible response and always selecting the correct one.

    To me, such “idealized responses” run against the grain of realism and rattle a reader’s suspension of disbelief … which should never be taken for granted.

  2. I’ve been reading Bickham’s book Writing Novels that Sell lately. He and you have convinced me to pay attention to Scene & Sequel, Stimulus & Response. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the review. I’ve made a note to add the search for reversed stimulus/response content when I do revisions on my manuscript. Most of the time, when I have this reversal occur, it’s at low key subtle moments that don’t necessarily take me out of the story. But still worth revising to see if they need to be changed.

  4. Great reminders, Jim. Any thoughts on the scene-sequel structure or order within chapters, when you want to end your chapters with cliffhangers? ?half scene (cliffhanger) – chapter break – complete scene – sequel – next scene up to cliffhanger – chapter break – etc.?

    • You mean, the James Patterson school of chapter breaks? Sheesh, that obviously doesn’t work, does it?

      Seriously, that’s the whole idea behind cliffhangers. The reader wants to see the sequel, which the writer slyly delays. I love being sly!

  5. Same thing, different name — Swain’s motivation-reaction units or MRUs. And they’re a game-changer for sure, as is scene & sequel.

    Enjoy the game today, Jim! Let’s hope your Rams and my Pats do better than last week. 😉

    • Yep, Bickham was Swain’s student at U. of Oklahoma.

      First games are like first waffles now. Toss ’em out. QBs don’t play preseason, so are rusty. It’s a long season!

  6. Jim, terrific summary. This reminded me of a Colorado writing conference many years ago where I heard Jack Bickham speak. Epiphany in 50 minutes. I still recommend Scene and Structure to newer writers (along with other craft classics by some guy named JSB).

    In first drafts, I still fight with stimulus/response. My brain must be eager to skip ahead to the next step so the response is often what I write first. Constantly have to flip sentence order. Thank goodness for cut and paste.

  7. Great post, Jim. Stimulus-response is indeed foundational. I’m one of those who gets the order wrong in draft at times. I’m writing a long and come up with a reaction and then realize I need a stimulus. At the sentence level, when I’m in flow, that “reaction-action, OOPS, that should be action-reaction” is happening at almost a subconscious level. You’re so right, it is like creating a typo. Being aware of it makes fixing it in revision a snap.

    I’m a huge fan of Bickham’s Scene & Sequel. Reading that book really helped my writing. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books are indeed fantastic examples of that in action. I love that Butcher’s teacher Debbie Chester at University of Oklahoma was Bickham’s protege, and Bickham was in turn Swain’s.

    Have a wonderful Sunday.

    • Wow, Dale. I didn’t know about the Butcher-Chester connection. Kind of amazing how many successful authors came out of the direct or indirect influence flowing out of the University of Oklahoma. Who would have thunk it?

  8. Great post.

    I guess I’m really not a smoker, cause I thought you did light it first 🙂

    I’ve always been confused on sequal. Like inciting incident, everyone has a different explanation for what’s supposed to be there. Definitely downloading Bickham’s books.

    • LOL. Have you ever in your life seen someone set match to ciggie, watch it for a bit, then put it in the mouth? The very idea would make Bogart gag and Bette Davis rant.

      You’ll enjoy Bickham.

  9. Sometimes, the sequel should start the next scene or chapter. Tying up the suspense too fast isn’t a good thing.

    The kids’ screeching and Jack, Jr.’s, continual slamming of his bedroom door was getting on Jack’s last nerve as he cleaned the huge pile of dishes. His thoughts drifted to the day the last of the kids were out of this dump, and he could finally throttle that whiny, lazy bitch Mary to death. His fingers tightened in anticipation.

    Mary waddled up behind him and shoved a pregnancy test in his face. “I’m pregnant.” (Chapter break).

  10. This is a subtle but important lesson. Maybe we err because we see our “film” unreeling in our minds and get all excited in trying to relate to the reader the sequences of mini-events. ie: put ciggie in mouth, light it, inhale. It has to be logical. Or as you say, we get a speed bump. You’ve given me a topic for this Tuesday, a riff on this topic. Thanks!

  11. One thing I found really helpful about paying attention to stimulus and response came from Swain’s book. He mentioned that while writing along, if you ever get stuck with what to write next, just remember the fundamentals—you know that a motivating stimulus has to have a reaction, so what’s the next logical response? Bill just put the cigarette in his mouth backward and lit the filtered end. How would he respond? (Not well.) You can mechanically go one stimulus and one reaction at a time until, eventually, the scene starts to flow again and you don’t have to think about it as much. Of course, there are days when I grind out a whole scene one labored stimulus after one labored response all the way to the end. But even in that case, having the small steps along the way makes it possible to get SOMETHING down rather than make a mess with all those droplets of blood oozing out my forehead. 😉

      • I had another stray thought in relation to sequels. Would you say that the “mirror moment” at the center of a novel typically takes the form of a sequel? They have that moment of emotional crisis, have to look at themselves in the mirror and analyze how they can possibly move forward, and come to a decision that will send them in a new direction both plot-wise and as a character?

        • Your thought is right on. It’s the the most important sequel…with the decision suspended till the end. One might even say it’s ongoing throughout the second half of the whole story.

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