Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How to write actions and reactions, stimulus and response...

Following is a letter I recently emailed to friend and peer, the talented novelist C.J. Martin. His friends call him Clay Boutwell.

The Temporal
A Temporal Trust (The Temporal)


Hi, Clay:

Thanks so much for sending me information from your notes about “Rivet your Readers with Deep Point of View” by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. Really great stuff. I think I might either contact her or paraphrase some of her advice in an upcoming blog.

 Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View
In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few thoughts I picked up originally from Jack Bickham, a novelist and creative writing professor at the University of Oklahoma's H.H. Herbert School of Journalism in Norman, Oklahoma. Though he passed away more than a decade ago, his lessons live on through the work of thousands of his students  who have successfully built careers on his encouragement and advice. Several of his “how-to” books are still in print.

Writing Novels That Sell

Jack was a stickler for adhering to logical actions and reactions in fiction. He called it the law of “Stimulus and Response.” I hope I can do the theory justice, but please assume any errors or failures in the message are due to my interpretation, not his sage advice.

Stimulus and Response:

A.      Make sure your character doesn’t jump, smile or scream until you have provided him or her with the stimulus to do so.

a.       John smiled at David’s stupid joke (wrong).

b.      David told a stupid joke. John smiled (right).

c.       The only exceptions—to be used sparingly—would be to draw out tension, i.e. the girl turns and screams…then you describe what she sees. Use of this incorrect reaction before action can, however, ultimately break stimulus/response and weaken your novel. Readers won’t know why exactly, but they may start to feel the story is not believable.
B.      Make sure your stimulus follows your response closely in most cases.

a.      Driverless, the car rolled back and picked up speed, straight for Suzie. Thinking about the D she got in Algebra and wondering if David really liked her, she leapt out of the way (wrong).

b.      Driverless, the car rolled back and picked up speed, straight for Suzie. She leapt out of the way (right)

c.       To insert other actions or information between the cause and corresponding effect tends to mute and lessen the response.

C.      The easiest way to build a scene is to think of it as a tennis match of stimulus and response, i.e.:

“You’re a jerk!” (Stimulus)

“No, you’re the jerk.” (Response) Brent threw his open Pepsi can at his friend. (Stimulus)

Darrin ducked (Response), laughed and raced up the stairs. (Stimulus)

Brent bolted up the stairs after his friend. (Response)
Many cases of writer’s block are caused by too much stimulus being stacked up, so the author has a difficult time knowing what his or her character should do, i.e.:

“You’re a jerk, and I want you to tell me what you did with my Play Station game!” Darrin threw Brent’s science report into the puddle and spit in his face. “I know you are dating my sister!”

So what happened here is that poor Brent has too many choices to convincingly react to any of them. Should he respond to the jerk insult, answer the question about the video game, grab his report before it’s ruined, wipe the spit from his eye or tell Brent that his sister is too ugly to date? There is no good choice because the author stacked up too much stimulus. And many writers stall trying to figure out their self-created conundrum. This is especially common in action and group scenes. Several characters take simultaneous actions and make it hard for other characters in the scene to respond to so much stimuli. It’s always better to play a metered game of tennis so that the reader and the author can understand a straight forward stimulus and response. Things can still happen quickly, even with many characters, just in their proper and understandable order.

I’ll probably toss a version of this up on my blogJ

‘Happy writing, Clay!

End email.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. If you have writing, music or art advice that you'd like to share, email me. I'd be happy to post it as a guest blog!


  1. I'm forwarding this to a friend on mine who graduated from the Journalism School at OU. This is excellent advice.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jeff. I have several of Jack Bickham's books in my library. He had a knack for making complex points simple.


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