Advanced Storytelling


Stimulus and Response

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 71–75).

It's so basic,
but so all-important:
for every stuimulus,
a response:
for every response,
a stimulus.
It just makes sense!

You happen to meet a friend on the street.

She says, "Hello."

You say, "Hello."

You're heating water for coffee, and burn yourself.

You jerk back from the pain.

The telephone rings.

You answer it.

The doctor taps your knee with his little hammer.

Your leg jerks.

Simple transactions like this happen all the time. They illustrate the basic principle of stimulus and response, and the mechanism that makes your fiction make sense and move forward in a disciplined line.

Seeing how straightforward the pattern is, one wonders why so much fiction is unpublishable; it may be because it's screwed up in terms of stimulus and response.

Perhaps it's because most of us don't like to believe that humans are really so mechanistic and predictable. The idea of a knee-jerk existence is repulsive to most of us. But money-making writers believe in the principle for ordering their fiction, whether or not they accept the theories of psychologists like B. F. Skinner in real life. Fiction has to be better` than life in many ways, and this is one of those ways.

The principle is simple, and it's stated at the head of this chapter. When you show a stimulus, you must show a response. When you want a certain response, you have to 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.

In our eclectic approach to writing, we won't often mention behavioristic ideas. But for this aspect of work, we need to accept it 100 percent.

Stimulus and response works whether you are trying to get sometone to duck his head (you throw something at him!) or plan his next step in a complicated plot. It works in dialogue and dramatic action, and it works in planning the architecture of your book.

The simple transaction is one almost like the knee-jerk reaction. Someone calls your name and you turn your head. Thunder crashes and you jump. "Duck!" someone yells, and you duck. Or—

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

"Yes, oh, yes!" Cindy sighed.

So when the response seems straightforward and easily understood, all you have to do as a writer is make sure both the stimulus and response are presented:

  • clearly
  • in the proper order
  • with nothing skipped
  • colse together, so the relationship is not obscured

Which, believe it or not, some people manage to mess up.

Consider this transaction.

Joe walked up to Archibald.
Archibald ducked violently.

Seeing this, the reader is confused. How does Joe's walking up cause Archibald to duck? It doesn't make sense! But the close juxtaposition of walking up and ducking clearly imply that one cause the other.

"Oh!" says the author when asked about it. "Well, you see, Joe had a gun in his hand and he looked mad.

"I guess," the author adds lamely, "I forgot to put that in."

Right! And assumptions by the author, which she forgts to put in the S&R presentation itself, are a prime cause of confusion and obscurity in such transactions. Stimulus and response provide clarity, logic and movement—but not if you assume things in your head and forge t to put them down on the paper. Putting S&R down in the wrong order is even more common. Consider:

Bob hit the dirt, hearing the explosion.

Anything wrong with that?


Why? Because the syntax made the reader discover the response before the stimulus.

So the sentence should be recast:

Hearing the explosion, Bob hit the dirt.

This makes sense.

Now, this may seem absurdly elementary, but in the white heat of composition, some very good writers have been known to forget it. Please don't flip off the warning. Look at your own copy and make sure you are not leaving out the stimulus, or assuming something the reader can't possibly know from reading your page, or writing in such a style that stimulus hits the reader's consciousness after the response.

You'll find, incidentally, that writing good S&R copy may have a subtle impact on your style. You'll tend to write shorter grammatical units. You will seldom—unless you intend to convey confusion—use constructions like "while," "as he," "at the same time as," because all these connote simultaneity, and in good S&R writing that just doesn't happen: you show the cause, then you show the effect.

How about the prescription that nothing should be skipped? Again, this goes to the writer imagining something, but failing to put it down on the paper, like this:

Susan collected her mail and went inside her house, screaming and crying.

QUERRY TO THE AUTHOR: "Hey, this doesn't make sense."

AUTHOR: "Oh! I forgot to put in there that she opened a letter that told her her mother and father just died." Long pause, then, thoughtfully, "I guess maybe I should have put that in?"

Don't skip! Readers can't provide what you left out in such cases, and the entire stimulus-response pattern is wrecked.

As to undue separation between stimulus and response, imagine, if you will, a wife hurling a frying pan at her husband, and konking him on the noggin. Then the author gives us a long scene between the wife and her mother on the phone, a talk with a lawyer, and a description of the sunset. And then, fifteen pages later, we come to the husband bandaging his head.

Chances are in many such cases that the reader will have forgotten what stimulated the husband to need a bandage, and the whole thing will be very puzzling. Stimulu-response packages need to fit closely.

Check your own copy for simple stimulus-and-response errors!


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.