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Stimulus First, Then Reaction

When I’m editing manuscripts, I often notice that I fall into trends and phases. There are things I pick up on more than others these days, and those things haven’t always been the same. The more I read, the more I notice, and the deeper I get into my own understanding of novel craft. That’s why it’s always interesting to me to analyze the kinds of notes I give across manuscripts, the things that a lot of writers are doing and why they work, or don’t.

Here’s a note I’ve found myself giving very often in recent months: Stimulus first, then reaction.

Here’s an example of what I currently see in manuscripts, something random that I’ve written:

“Jeez! You scared me,” Anne said. Howard was standing in the kitchen, holding a butcher knife.

In this snippet, we get Anne’s reaction to Howard first, then we finally figure out what the reaction means: Howard is standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife.

The effect is jarring for the reader, but not in a good, suspenseful way (which I think is what the author intended). We get something that doesn’t seem to fit (reaction) and, instead of reading, we are now scrambling to figure out where the reaction belongs (to the stimulus). It takes the reader out of the story.

Now, I know that some people like to build suspense by giving a reader the reaction, then making them wait for the big reveal of what the stimulus is. This fails more often than it works because of the aforementioned confusion. And you’re likely going to reveal what caused the reaction within a sentence or two anyway, so is the payoff of withholding really worth it?

The same goes for introducing a character with dialogue instead of putting them in the scene first. Here’s an example:

“What’s going on, party people?”
I looked up. John was going around the room with a beer in one hand, slapping sloppy high-fives with the other. What a tool.

Once again, we’re left to play catch-up and try to figure out who uttered the phantom dialogue. It would be much more effective to say:

John barreled into the room and slapped a round of sloppy high-fives, spilling beer in his wake. “What’s going on, party people?” he yelled.
What a tool.

We know exactly what’s going on, the stage is set, all the players are in place. When it comes time for John to speak, we know the who and the why and the how of the situation.

When you plunk a new character into the scene or when you’re building a moment of surprise, remember that clarity is king. Give us a linear progression that goes from the stimulus to the narrator/main character’s interpretation and reaction.

That’s what we do as human beings. We see, interpret and react. Why should our characters or our storytellers be any different?

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