Advanced Storytelling


Background Motivation

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 77–79).

Please note this well: stimulus is specific and immediate; background is not stimulus.

For example, if Carolyn goes into her medicine cabinet to take two aspirin, and I ask you why she did this, in terms of S&R, don't, please, say something like, "Carolyn had had a headache all day." To work well, a stimulus must be specific and it must be immediate. The fact that Carolyn had had a headache all day is background information. The reader, at some mysterious level, will not believe the transaction. It's all well and good to let me know that the headache had persisted all day, but my question as a reader is, "Why didn't she take aspirin earlier? At noon? Five minutes ago? Or why didn't she wait another five minutes? Why right this instant?

To make it work, you have to show a transaction like this:

Carolyn's headache pulsed, as it had all day. (background)
Thunder blasted loudly outside. (stimulus)
The noise intensified her headache. (internalization)
She got up and went to the bathroom. (response)

In one of my university classes I pass out a sheet listing a number of actions. The task is to provide a stimulus for what's presented, and then provide a response to what's given.

One of them reads like this:

Sam dropped the lighted cigarette into the gasoline.

What would be the immediate stimulus for this?

Not something like, "Sam wanted to blow something up," or "Sam had been angry at the gas station owner for days," or "Sam didn't know fire would ignite gasoline."

All that stuff is background.

Rather, it must be something like the following:

"Drop that cigarette, fool!" or

The cigarette burned Sam's fingers or

A car backfired, scaring Sam badly.

See the point? Immediate and specific and external—not old background motivation that might have caused the action at any old time.

But suppose you have the cigarette already falling toward the puddle of gasoline. What response do you put in next?

Before reading another word here, take out a sheet of scratch paper and complete this transaction:

STIMULUS: the cigarette falls into the gasoline.

RESPONSE: (You write it).

I'll wait.

Done? Fine. Now please don't tell me you wrote something like any of the following:

The fire truck came. (This skips steps, right?)

Sam was horrified. (Skip! He hasn't had anything happen to horrify him yet. You have to show the result of the cigarette hitting the gasoline before you can show another response inside Sam. And if you have him realize what he has done, and be horrified as the cigarette falls, fine. But you're just adding another stop in the stimulus package and you still have to show the result of the cigarette hitting the gasoline. See discussion below.

The owner raced out of the station. (Skip!)

Oh dear, Sam thought. (Nothing has happened yet. How can he be thinking this?)

No, the response to Sam's dropping of the cigarette into the gasoline almost has to be some variation of an orange flash, or an explosion, or flames sizzling across the tarmac, or something of that nature. Fire trucks may come, Sam may be horrified, and so on. But the first thing that happens must follow the cigarette hitting the gasoline.

Also, please notice that Sam's horror—even if it takes place as he realizes what he has done before the cigarette hits the pavement—cannot be played in that order because it puts too much between the outside stimulus and the outside response. I mean, the next thing that's going to happen is a hell of a fire. That will be in response to Sam's cigarette, not his horror. So you shouldn't put the horror in because it only confuses the issue.

We'll talk more about the order or presentation in S&R packages when we get into dialogue. For now, perhaps the point has been made.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.