Advanced Storytelling


The Complicated Transaction

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 75–77).

All stimulus-and-response transactions, you will note, are not as conveniently simple as those we've dealt with so far. What if, for example, we return to the marriage proposal we used earlier and change the response a bit?

"Will you marry me, Cindy?" he asked.

Cindy hit him with her beer bottle.

Or instead of having someone touch a hot stove and jerk back in reflex, what if we have two men facing each other across a restaurant table, and one of them extends his hand, putting it in the flame of the table candle, and then, instead of jerking back, he leaves his hand in the flame, cooking?

Obviously, something more complicated is happening here!

What we have discovered is that in every transaction, no matter how simple and straightforward, there is always a step between the stimulus and the response, and it takes place inside the mind, heart, and body of the person receiving the stimulus and preparing a response.

That process between S&R we call internalization.

In a simple transaction, as we said, the internalization needn't be presented. In the case of "Hello"—Hello" or the knee jerk, it's machinelike and predictable. But when Cindy hits her suitor with a bottle, or the man feels the candle pain and ignores it, cooking his hand, something more is going on and we as writers have to provide the internalization so the reader will understand the response—and the meaning of the transaction.

Shall I say that again? Okay, fine.

When the S&R transaction is complicated, you may have to play the internalization so the reader will understand the response. We can fix Cindy this way:

(Stimulus) "Will you marry me, Cindy?" he 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 Andy finally to ask her. Instant rage flooded through her and
(Response) she hit him with her beer bottle.

Now the transaction makes some kind of sense.

I leave it to you to write an internalization for the man holding his hand in the cafe candle. It might just be that he'll feel the agonizing pain but remember that he must prove to his colleague that he is fanatically tough and self-disciplined, so he fights the pain, fights the impulse to jerk his hand out of the flame, and sits there with his own flesh cooking. (If that sounds far-fetched, you weren't around for Watergate a few years ago, and some of the autobiographies that subsequently came from some of the principals).

Understanding and acceptance of this principle answers a question often asked by fledgling novelists: When do I go inside the character's head? One part of the answer: When you must, to explain a complicated and unexpected response to a stimulus.

So if you want to drop in a bit about the charater's thinking or feeling process, or even a tiny bit of background, you provide a complicated stimulus, and the character is forced to pause an instant and react internally in order to formulate the unexpected response.

There may be times, of course, especially in mystery fiction, when the experienced craftsman will purposely leave out the internalization in order to create a puzzling transaction, in order to heighten reader tension and curiosity. That's a somewhat advanced technique. If you're new to the idea of S&R in fiction, I strongly urge you to handle such transactions very straightforwardly for a while, until you absolutely have it down pat. Only then can you risk tinkering with the norm.

Just remember the general principle: when the transaction is complex, you may have to play the internalization in order for the reader to understand the response.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.