Stimulus and Response: Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

cute fluffy cat kitten string playing adorable pet animal fun

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.

In Character

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.

pictures c/o hovercraft doggy

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from,,,, iTunes and Kobo.

12 thoughts on “Stimulus and Response: Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty

  1. P.A.Lewis-Brown says:

    I always find your posts interesting. In fact, a few months ago, I took on board one of your tips. Really helped. I’m about 3 weeks off posting my next book.

  2. Impeccable work, Lorrie!

  3. Yes! I like your emphasis on showing rather than glossing over ac
    Goon and reaction.

  4. Stimulus: You shared this post on Google+
    Response: I read it.
    Stimulus: I left a comment and shared the article with friends.
    Response: You receive followers on Google+ and WordPress.

    Here’s my question: Was that final response actually a response or a result? I guess if you took action and smiled – then your smile would be a response.

    Yes, I think that’s right. The additional followers were a result of my stimulus. Your response would have to come from you, not the world around you, because that’s not under your (the character’s) control.

    Excellent article! I will use this in my writing.

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