Dont Forget Stimulus and Response

Story logic goes deeper than providing good background motivation and avoiding coincidence. Even if you're an ace on these matters, your copy still may be flawed in terms of having things happen for no apparent reason. That's because fiction readers may need more than background and good motive for what their characters do in a story.

Readers will also usually need to see a specific stimulus that causes a given response right here and now.

The law of stimulus and response dictates that your character must have an immediate, physical cause for what he does. This immediate stimulus cannot be merely a thought inside his head; for readers to believe many transactions, they have to be shown a stimulus to action that is outside of the character-some kind of specific prod that is onstage right now.

So for every response you desire in a character, you must provide an immediate stimulus.

Turning this around, it's equally true that if you start by showing a stimulus, then you can't simply ignore it; you must show a response.

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty-gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Let's consider a bit further.

The chapter just before this one looked at character background and plot motivation before mentioning stimulus and response because it's important for you clearly to understand the difference. Background, as we have seen, goes to earlier actions affecting the character's life. Motivation has to do with the character's desires and plans, which grow out of that background, as well as out of what's been going on earlier in the story. Stimulus is much more immediate: it's what happens right now, outside the character, to make him do what he's going to do in the next few moments.

For example, if in your story you want your character Martha to walk into the personnel director's office to seek a job, you need some background to explain why she needs a job; perhaps she comes from a poor family and has no means of support (long-term background) and maybe she just lost some other job, and so needs a new one right away (short-term background). She has made the decision to apply at this company because she just spent her last few dollars to pay her rent (even shorter-term background, combined with motivation).

Even so, you can't just have Martha sitting there in the office, suddenly get up, and walk into the personnel director's office. In fiction, that won't work; it will seem unreal, incredible. What you have to have is an immediate stimulus to get Martha to get up and walk in now.

So you write something like:

The secretary looked up at Martha and said, "You can go in now" (Stimulus)

Martha got up and walked into the office. (Response)

This is how stimulus-response writing works. It's a bit like a game of baseball. The pitcher throws the ball; the batter swings at the ball. You wouldn't have the pitcher throwing the ball and nobody at the plate swinging at it, would you? And you couldn't have the batter swinging at the ball without a pitcher being out there to throw it, could you?

Strangely enough, novice fiction writers often mess up their copy by doing something almost as obviously wrong as the pitcher-batter mistakes just cited. What happens is that the writer either doesn't know about stimulus-response movement in fiction, or else she forgets it.

The latter error is more common. Almost anyone can see the innate logic of stimulus-response transactions once it is pointed out to them. But in writing, it's amazing how easy it is for some of these same fictioneers to let their imagination get ahead of their logic and see the whole transaction in their mind, but then forget to provide the reader all the steps.

My student Wally provided me with a classic example of such forgetful-ness once. He wrote:

Max walked into the room. He ducked just in time.

I looked up from Wally's page and asked, "Why did Max duck? What did he duck? What's going on here?"

Wally scratched his head. "Well, Sally was mad at him. You knew that. "

"Wally", I protested, "the fact she was angry is background If I'm to understand why Max ducks, I've got to see an immediate stimulus. Why did he duck?"

"She threw a hand mirror at him", Wally said.

"Then you've got to put that in your copy!"

"You mean", Wally said, "I've got to put in every step?"

Of course.

Stimulus and response seems so simple, but it's so easy to forget or overlook. I urge you to examine some of your own fiction copy very minutely. Every moment two characters are in interaction, look for the stimulus, then look for the immediate response. Then look for how the other character responds in turn. The stimuli and responses fly back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball, and no step can be left out.

And please let me add a few more words to emphasize a point that might otherwise be skimmed over or misunderstood. Stimulus-response transactions - the heart of logic in fiction copy-are external. They are played outside the characters, onstage now.

Background is not stimulus.

Motivation is not stimulus.

Character thought or feeling is not stimulus.

The stimulus must come from outside, so if put on a stage the audience could see or hear it.

The response that completes the transaction must be outside, too, if the interaction is to continue. Only if the interaction of the characters is to end immediately can the response be wholly internal.

I mention all this because so many of my writing students over the years have tried so hard to evade the precept of stimulus and response. Whenever I explain the procedure in a classroom, it's virtually inevitable that someone will pipe up with, "Can I have the character do something in response to a thought or feeling, without anything happening outside?"

Consider: If you start having your character get random thoughts or feelings, and acting on them all the time, the logic of the character and your story will break down. In real life, you might get a random thought for no apparent reason, and as a consequence do or say something. But as we discussed in Chapter Ten, among other places, fiction has to be better than life, clearer and more logical. It is always possible to dream up something- some stimulus-that can happen to cause the thought or feeling internally, and it is always possible to dream up something the responding character can then do in the physical sense as the visible, onstage response to the stimulus. Response always follows stimulus onstage now. Response is always caused by a stimulus, onstage now. The fact that there may be some thought or emotional process inside the character between the two events does not mean they both don't always have to be there.

If you find yourself skipping stimuli or responses, or substituting shooting-star internal impulses for stimuli -or failing to show external responses after stimuli - it is certain that your fiction isn't making good sense to the reader. He will complain that, in your stories, things are happening for no reason. And he'll hate your stuff. He may not know why, but he won't believe it.

So, no matter how good you think you are in these logical terms, wouldn't it be a good idea to take just a few minutes someday soon and comb over your copy to make doubly sure?

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  • mentha
    How to discribe a stimulus and response in a story?
    8 years ago
    How to write a response to a stimulus?
    8 years ago

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