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.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

pictures c/o hovercraft doggy


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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