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.

Sweet Emotion

by James Scott Bell

The other morning, as is my wont (and I want what I wont when I want it) I took a fresh cup of joe and my AlphaSmart to the backyard for some thinking, pondering, and writing time. The joe was brewed in my moka pot, a gift to mankind from the Italian inventor Alfonso Bialetti. Usually I take it black, but we happened to have some Coffeemate Sweet Italian Cream in the fridge. I thought the key word was Italian, but as it turns out the emphasis should be on sweet. This stuff is a sugar bomb. You need less than a dollop of regular cream. My hand trembled, and I poured in a touch too much.

Which almost ruined the coffee. I soldiered on, but the enjoyment of the brew was lessened considerably.

Which naturally got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.

Emotion in our fiction is a sweetener. In the right amount it makes the story beautiful and tasty. Too much can ruin it.

So the trick is putting in just the right amount. But how do we measure?

Start with genre. On one end of the scale is hardboiled. At the other end is romance. In between is everything else. The mistake of the hardboiled school is avoiding emotion. The mistake of the romantics is larding it on.

There are ways around both these mistakes.

Scene and Sequel

Let’s begin with the basic premise that what’s going on inside your Lead is of abiding interest to your readers. They want to know about the emotions, not just the actions.

The latter component, action, is what the great writing teacher Dwight Swain called scene. The former he called sequel. There’s a definite structure to both.

A scene is made up of Objective, Obstacles, and Outcome.

A sequel is Emotion, Analysis, and Decision…the Decision leading to the next action scene.

Jim Butcher has said that the key to the popularity of his Dresden Files is sequel:

This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes–but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.

For more on this, see the definitive text on scene and sequel by Swain disciple Jack Bickham.

Showing and Telling

There are times when telling the emotion is fine. I have a little “intensity scale” in my brain which measures the intensity of a moment. When it’s relatively low, I tell. When high, I show. Here’s what I mean.

A woman is slightly worried when her husband hasn’t called for a couple of hours. You might tell it like this: A trickle of worry hit Pam. Usually Steve would let her know if he was going to be late. There is no need to go into the physiological effects of worry on her body. The moment isn’t intense enough.

But what if she doesn’t hear from him that night? Or the following day? Now it’s intense, so you show: Hands trembling, she punched the number for his office. When the receptionist answered Pam’s throat clenched like a fist clutching her vocal cords.

Overwrite and Edit

Now, when you got to those big emotions, I have a suggestion. This can be done as you write, or you can do it when you edit your draft.

Open a new document and do some focused freewriting on the emotion. This means you don’t stop and edit, you just let it flow. Write in the POV of the character. Let the character tell you how she’s feeling. Let her go on and on, giving you the color of it, the taste of it, the metaphors of it. Do the most obvious feeling first, but then go on to another emotion, one you didn’t anticipate at first. Maybe even the opposite emotion. We’re a tangle of complexities, and that’s what makes for compelling characters, too.

Set that document aside for fifteen minutes. Come back to it and pull out the best parts, the parts that are most gripping and original. Put them in the book.


From the hardest of the hardboileds, Mickey Spillane, comes his PI Mike Hammer in One Lonely Night. Hammer’s backstory includes heavy combat in WWII, lots of kills, and what we would today call PTSD. He deals with his ghosts by shooting bad guys and boozing. So when a judge rakes him over the coals in front of a crowded courtroom, calling him a lowlife killer who doesn’t belong in a civilized world, Hammer can’t forget it. As he’s driving he gets a look at himself in the rear view mirror, and hates what he sees.

I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.

I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?

That’s why I parked the car and started walking in the rain. I didn’t want to look in that damn mirror any more.

Go thou and do likewise.

The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start

by James Scott Bell

Last week in the comments, Kay DiBianca wrote:

I sure would like to have a master list of the best books for learning the craft of writing.

You asked, you got it.

Now, modesty prevents me from mentioning my own books on the craft. If I was not the humble scribe that I am, I would probably say something like, “These books have proved extremely helpful to fiction writers,” and then I’d put a link to my website for a list of the books.

Instead, I will narrow my focus six books which I found most helpful when I was starting out. There’s that old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well, I was ready, and these books appeared. They helped lay a foundation for all my writing since.

Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham

Apparently only available in hardback, this is the Writer’s Digest updated version of Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell (which is the edition I studied). It was his treatment of “scene and sequel” that gave me my first big breakthrough as both a screenwriter and novelist. A light came on in my brain. It was a major AH HA! moment. Bickham’s style is accessible and practical, and a big influence on me when I began teaching. I wanted to give writers what Bickham gave me: nuts and bolts, techniques that work, and not a lot of fluff and war stories.

I found out that Bickham was running the writing program at the University of Oklahoma, where he himself had been mentored by a man named Dwight V. Swain. So I researched Swain, and discovered he’d been a writer of pulp fiction and mass market paperbacks, and written a book a bunch of writers swore by. So naturally I bought it.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

For those wanting to write commercial fiction (i.e., fiction that sells), this is the golden text. Swain takes the practical view of the pulp writer, the guy who had to produce gripping, ripping stories in order to pay the bills. He lays it all out in a perfect sequence for the new writer, who could go chapter by chapter, building a writing foundation from the ground up. I review my highlighted and sticky-noted copy every year.

Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block

Block was, for years, the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine. At the same time, he was a working writer himself, having come up through the paperback market and into a series character that has endured, the New York ex-cop Matthew Scudder. Thus, what Block brought to the table was the way a prolific writer actually thinks. The questions I was having as I wrote Block always seemed to anticipate and address. He opens the book with his timeless advice: “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”

Screenplay by Syd Field

This was, I believe, the first “how to” book I bought when I decided I had to try to become a writer. I started out wanting to write screenplays. With writers like William Goldman and Joe Eszterhas getting seven figures for original scripts, I thought, well, maybe this would be a good venture (the only more lucrative form of writing, according to Elmore Leonard, is ransom notes). Field’s book contains his famous “template,” which is a structure model. I studied movies for a year just looking at structure, and finally nailed it. What I added to Field was what is supposed to happen at the first “plot point.” I called it the “Doorway of No Return.” That discovery still excites me.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This is a right-brain book, and therefore a necessary balance. The secret to elevated writing is finding a way for the rational and playful sides of the writer’s mind to partner up. Bradbury’s book is full of the joy of writing, and it’s infectious. Two of my favorite quotes: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” And: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!” My signed copy is always within reach.

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Sol Stein, 92 years young, is a writer, editor, and publisher (he founded Stein & Day back in 1962). When I started out he had an innovative, interactive computer program called WritePro, which is apparently still available. Much of the advice in the program is in this book, including inside tips on point of view, dialogue, showing and telling, plotting, and suspense.

So there you have it. My list of the books that helped me most when I was starting out. The floor is now open to you, TKZers. What books have you found helpful in your writing journey?