Advanced Storytelling


Keeping Your S&R Transactions Straightforward

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 80–82).

Many of us have witnessed world-class tennis at some time or other, watching as a great player blasted a forehand, saw the opponent's return going crosscourt, raced over to hit a backhand, sensed his opponent in retreat, and rushed to the net to hit a winning volley.

Great stuff. Pure stimulus and response, possibly with a little internalization-anticipation thrown in.

But even that great player we just watched would have been reduced to utter confusion if, instead of seeing one ball come across the net, he had been forced to try to react to six!

If it's so simple to see in tennis, shouldn't it be as clear in writing? The rule: one stimulus = one response.

Look at this little bit of action:

Ralph exploded into the room. He threw his wrench at Ted. He yelled. "I'm going to kill you, Ted!" He raced across the room and hit Ted with a haymaker. "Are you going to confess or not?" he screamed.

Now you tell me what Ted's respose is going to be.

It's at times like this that writers often lean back from the keyboard and say, "Geez, I'm stuck!"

Why? It's obvious. Too many stimuli. We ganged up on poor Ted and bombarded him with several tennis balls, not giving him time to react to them in turn. So now that we've finally decided to give the poor guy a response, we're as confused as he is, trying to figure out what he'll respond to.

So maybe we make a desperation try like this:

Ted ducked the wrench. "Why do you want to kill me?" he replied. He reeled back from the forced of the blow. "Never!"

And of course that doesn't make sense either!

Has the point been made? Have one ball sent over the net. Have it hit back. Hit another ball. Take things logically, one step at a time.

Each time you conlcude a stimulus, ordinarily, hit the return key. Make a new paragraph. The stimulus goes in one paragraph, the response in the next one.

And if you must have Eugene send more than one stimulus at a whack, please remember these points:

  1. All parts of one stimulus package go in the same paragraph. When the stimulus ends, the paragraph ends.
  2. If more than one stimulus is sent, the responder will always react to the last stimulus sent.

Here is an example.

Suppose Bill feels sorry for somehing he has done. goes to Ronald, says he's sorry, and offers to shake hands.

You cannot write it this way:

"I'm sorry, Ronald," Bill said, holding out his hand. He felt sorry.

Why is this impossible? Because the last thing you've put in the paragraph is internalization, and Ronald cannot conceivably respond to that. So if internalization is involved, it cannot go last in the paragraph.

You can, however, write it two other ways:

Bill felt sorry. He held out his hand. "I'm sorry, Ronald."


Bill felt sorry. "I'm sorry, Ronald," he said, holding out his hand.

Which will you choose? The answer depends on which stimulus in the package you want Ronald to respond to. If you want Ronald to speak, you put Bill's words last. But if you want Ronald to dash Bill's hand aside, or stare contemptuously at it, you'll put the hand last.

Consider, analyze, and practice your own S&R presentations. Don't assume they're okay, because if you haven't put in a lot of hard work honing your skill in this area, they probably aren't! Carefully take some of your own copy and mark it up, putting stimulus and response markers in the margins, and noting whether you are following the rules. Do you find internalizations? Are they where they should be? Have you inadvertently skipped some steps in a chain of S&R transactions?

Take your time. Don't assume you're perfect in this area. The time you take may make all the difference betwen clear, dramatci copy and a mess.

After doing some of your analysis, log your results in your journal. Make a note to analyze your own copy again six months from now.

No rush. If you devote a week or two to working on the techniques of S&R, you'll only be spending as much time as we do in a class on the novel at Oklahoma. That's how important we think it is for this method to be drilled in.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.