How to Write Actions: Stimulus First, Then Reaction

I’ve been thinking about how to write actions that work. 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.

how to write actions, action writing
As human beings, we see, interpret, and react. If you jumble the order for your characters, readers will have a hard time navigating through your sentences.

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

How to Write Actions: Don’t Put the Reaction Before the Stimulus

Here’s an example of what to avoid in terms of how to write actions. This is just something random that I’ve written:

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

In this example of action writing, 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.

The Wrong Way to Build Suspense

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?

How to Write Actions: Don’t Introduce a Character with Dialogue

When we’re considering how to write actions, 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 manipulate this bit of action writing 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.

Clarity is King: See, Interpret, React

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. This is how to write actions effectively. (For extra credit, check out my post on how to write action scenes.)

That’s what we do as human beings. We see, interpret and react. Why should our action writing reflect something different?

Do you need help adding clarity to the actions in your story? My editing services will help you smooth out your action writing so readers can zip right through your prose.

38 Replies to “How to Write Actions: 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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? =)

  12. 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 🙂
    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.

  13. 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.)

  14. 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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