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?

41 Replies to “Stimulus First, Then Reaction”

  1. Would you say a good rule of thumb would be to faithfully reproduce your character’s experiences, rather than try to be tricky and switch things around on your reader? So if the character sees John barreling in first, then have that first. But if the character is not facing the door and hears the voice first, then it’s a differenct case. Or is it sometimes worth it to actually change the order of events, so that the character sees John walk in first?

  2. Great post! I used to do this all the time before my beta reader beat it out of me. After a while, I realized that there was just as much tension in showing the guy with the knife having the POV character gasp, and quickly question Howard’s intentions.

    I’m all about anything that helps me not confuse my reader.

  3. You’re right–it’s tempting to do things like this sometimes. I definitely see it in books and I can’t say I ever really enjoy it. Usually my favorite authors are the ones who make things perfectly clear, so I never have to jump out of the story and go, “What the heck??”

  4. Bongo agrees with Mary 100% — and not just because Bongo needs Mary to marry him. There’s a saying in Bongo’s country that illustrates Mary’s concept: get the bucket before you milk the goat.

    An important thing to note is that it’s not always about confusing the reader to the point of where the reader is lost. Anything that makes a reader pause or slow down to process a sentence or paragraph is a bad thing.

  5. Great post. I think I’ve really caught onto this by reading other people’s work. Sometimes you don’t see it in your own, because you know what’s coming so it makes sense to you.

  6. Seth, would you be in one of those American states where a man can marry a man so that Bongo can stay in the country?

    If so, please see Bongo’s earlier note about “pitching.”

  7. Very useful post, Mary–we all need to remember stimulus first! I think this is hard because the reaction seems to happen first…we see the person jump. But that’s not the way to write it.

  8. Ha – guilty as charged!!!! I’m already at work, revising…redeeming my sins. You are such a great teacher – thanks for all your incredible posts!

  9. Thanks for the post, Mary. I agree. Although that butcher knife example has an interesting poetic quality to it in its backwardness.

    Just for the sake of discussion, what do you think about putting the dialogue before the character introduction if the main character actually hears the words before seeing the person who speaks? Let’s say I’m writing a scene about two girls talking by their lockers, and they hear a shout behind them. Only then do they turn around and see that the shouter is their friend, um, Bongo, who has stopped by to ask if either girl is old enough to get married.

    Is it worth milking the goat before getting out the bucket on that one? Or is it better to fudge the events a bit for clarity’s sake?

  10. Bryan — Way to become dead to me.

    Livia — I think you answered your own question. Also, you can’t get too caught up in describing who’s looking and facing where and how they turn toward whatever because then you’ll be there all day, laboring over the same scene that’s going to take twice as long as it needs to. The reader can fill a lot of these things in with their imagination.

  11. Mary, it might be time to take Bongo on as a disciple *cough* husband. If for no other reason than to keep your readers. (Bongo fears retribution but can’t stop typing.)

    Or perhaps a special Bongo Button on your home page? You could cut out some of the books on the masthead… Just a thought… Also Bongo hears weddings at Tavern on the Green are quite lovely. Have you ever worn a hijab?

  12. If anyone’s interested in reading WAY more about stimulus and response than anyone needs to know, Jack M. Bickham’s book Scene & Structure goes into (extreme) detail on the topic.

  13. Thanks for another great post, Mary. Thanks especially for the examples. So helpful. Great characterization of John too. Makes me want to go grab a cold one right now.

  14. Great advice. I try to keep from doing this, but have found a couple of instances in my work. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on this.

    Bongo’s saying about milking the goat is very wise. I mean, why waste all that good goat milk by not using a bucket? =)

  15. Oh darn, I am already paranoid about POV changes and author’s voice – now I’ve got Correct Order to fret about as well! LOL ๐Ÿ™‚
    Seriously, thank you for pointing this out. I know I do it – and just haven’t ever thought about it before, but you are quite right.

    I suppose in all honesty it is OK to have a sentence in the incorrect order occasionally, providing it slots into the general feel of the scene and if it fits the POV better – but not to use it too often.

    It just shows that you never stop learning to write (or edit! I’ll be passing this link over to my editor. Jo: check for Correct Order in the next MS please….)

    Thanks again.

  16. Fabulous advice! This works across the board. I can use this with my picture book manuscripts as well. Thinking of one in particular and banging my head on the desk.

    Stick in brain! Stick in brain! (I’m willing the advice to stick, not advising of a stick in my head.)

  17. I think a lot of times it doesn’t work, but sometimes I think it does…it makes a hard cut/reaction from the last scene–like if a character has done something rotten, cut to next scene, “He did WHAT?” then establish scene I think works sharper/funnier than establishing the scene first. (I think movies can get away with with more easily.) Anyways those are just my thoughts.

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