In fiction, stimulus and response work like a ping-pong game. They make you look at the line-by-line progression of a story.
Stimulus is external, and so is response, and as such they must be shown on the page. Action and dialogue are key. However, action can include a character interacting with the setting, showing an emotional response, or describing a sensory input. So long as these are ‘shown’, not told.
Character thoughts do not create an external stimulus or response.
So let’s have a closer look. The first stimulus might be an event or action which affects Character A. Character A responds. Their response creates a stimulus for Character B. Character B responds, which in turn becomes a new stimulus for Character A.
For example we could take the following initial stimulus:
– Mary threw the ball
Which demands a response to be shown.
– Bill caught/dropped/ignored the ball.
For every stimulus, you need to show a response or the reader will think – what happened to the ball?
For every desired response, you must show a stimulus otherwise the reader will wonder – where did the ball come from?
The response of one character can be the stimulus for another – What does M say or do when B has reacted to the ball?
Stimulus and Response can be used …
In the Little Things
Does your stimulus come before your response?
- Ken heard the door slam and turned to look.
Or is it the other way round?
- Ken turned after hearing the door slam.
If so, you’re making your reader work backwards to figure out what’s going on.
In the Big Things
An on-going situation does not create a specific stimulus for a specific event.
- For 17 years Mr Tucker had been harassed by his wife. A malicious woman, she took pleasure in making his life a misery. On Tuesday, 14th March 1958 Mr Tucker packed up his bags and left.
What made Mr Tucker leave all of a sudden? What was the last straw?
- On Tuesday, 14th February 1958 Mrs Tucker informed her husband she had dug up his prize turnip patch in order to plant a bed of red hot pokers. Mr Tucker packed up is bags and left.
Do your responses make sense? Are they true to character?
- Margaret flapped her hands about and screamed.
‘Would you like a cup of tea,’ her mother asked.
‘You know I can’t stand wasps,’ Margaret replied.
Be clear about why a character responds in a particular way.
- Margaret flapped her hands about and screamed. She hated wasps.
‘Would you like a cup of tea,’ her mother asked, trying to pacify her as always.
‘Must you always resort to tea,’ Margaret replied.
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