The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
secretary looked up at Martha and said, "You can go in now." (Stimulus.)
    Martha got up and walked into the office. (Response.)
    This is how stimulus-response writing works. It's a bit like a game of baseball. The pitcher throws the ball; the batter swings at the ball. You wouldn't have the pitcher throwing the ball and nobody at the plate swinging at it, would you? And you couldn't have the batter swinging at the ball without a pitcher being out there to throw it, could you?
    Strangely enough, novice fiction writers often mess up their copy by doing something almost as obviously wrong as the pitcher-batter mistakes just cited. What happens is that the writer either doesn't know about stimulus-response movement in fiction, or else she forgets it.
    The latter error is more common. Almost anyone can see the innate logic of stimulus-response transactions once it is pointed out to them. But in writing, it's amazing how easy it is for some of these same fictioneers to let their imagination get ahead of their logic and see the whole transaction in their mind, but then forget to provide the reader all the steps .
    My student Wally provided me with a classic example of such forgetfulness once. He wrote:
    Max walked into the room. He ducked just in time.
    I looked up from Wally's page and asked, "Why did Max duck? What did he duck? What's going on here?"
    Wally scratched his head. "Well, Sally was mad at him. You knew that "
    "Wally," I protested, "the fact she was angry is background . If I'm to understand why Max ducks, I've got to see an immediate stimulus. Why did he duck?"
    "She threw a hand mirror at him," Wally said.
    "Then you've got to put that in your copy!"
    "You mean," Wally said, "I've got to put in every step?"
    Of course.
    Stimulus and response seems so simple, but it's so easy to forget or overlook. I urge you to examine some of your own fiction copy very minutely. Every moment two characters are in interaction, look for the stimulus, then look for the immediate response. Then look for how the other character responds in turn. The stimuli and responses fly back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball, and no step can be left out .
    And please let me add a few more words to emphasize a point that might otherwise be skimmed over or misunderstood. Stimulus-response transactions—the heart of logic in fiction copy—are external . They are played outside the characters, onstage now.
    Background is not stimulus.
    Motivation is not stimulus.
    Character thought or feeling is not stimulus.
    The stimulus must come from outside, so if put on a stage the audience could see or hear it.
    The response that completes the transaction must be outside, too, if the interaction is to continue. Only if the interaction of the characters is to end immediately can the response be wholly internal.
    I mention all this because so many of my writing students over the years have tried so hard to evade the precept of stimulus and response. Whenever I explain the procedure in a classroom, it's virtually inevitable that someone will pipe up with, "Can I have the character do something in response to a thought or feeling, without anything happening outside?"
    My reply is no, you can't.
    Consider: If you start having your character get random thoughts or feelings, and acting on them all the time, the logic of the character and your story will break down. In real life, you might get a random thought for no apparent reason, and as a consequence do or say something. But as we discussed in Chapter Ten, among other places, fiction has to be better than life, clearer and more logical. It is always possible to dream up something—some stimulus—that can happen to cause the thought or feeling internally, and it is always possible to dream up something the responding character can then do in the physical sense as the visible, onstage response to the stimulus. Response always follows stimulus onstage now. Response is always caused by a stimulus, onstage now. The fact

Similar Books

Girl Through Glass

Sari Wilson

Red Dirt Rocker

Jody French

Resurrection House

James Chambers

Messed Up

Molly Owens

An Honorable Man

Paul Vidich

Death and the Princess

Robert Barnard