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.