The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

Send to Kindle

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  The next one I’ll be offering is “One Good Scene.”  Classes fill up quickly and the first notice goes to folks on my emailing list; so if you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list.

My latest novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking Books), is available in bookstores and online in print, ebook, and audio. If you haven’t read it, here’s a sample. Try it, you’ll like it.  

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT; my next novel is slated to appear early in 2013 with Viking. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Craft, Editing, How we read, Revising fiction, Writing tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

  1. This is such a good reminder. It makes so much sense, but it’s easy to forget.

  2. Brighid says:

    Great advice and I like the part about letting the reader experience the emotion for himself. Too many times writers try and tell the reader what to think.

  3. Love “Lola screamed.” instead of “She screamed in horror….” See what damage the word “had” does in slowing the story, removes us from the moment. Great advice and exemplars, Barbara, well done.
    Btw interesting to compare US English and UK English. “Shined the flashlight”or”shone the torch”.Still, we know what’s meant – that’s what matters.)
    Tom

    • “Shined” and “shone” are agony for me. Whichever I choose sounds wrong. Torch vs. flashlight, though, that’s easy, since here a torch is one of those things they carry to hunt down vampires and burn their castles.

  4. Linnea says:

    I think this is along the same lines as info dumping and excessive description. We’re trying to ‘help’ the reader experience the story and the reader doesn’t need any help, thank you very much.:)

  5. Zan Marie says:

    Thanks, Barbara! I need this reminder.

  6. Nan says:

    I really like your tips Barbara. The publishing blog posts are great too, but I’m still writing, so I find these reminders very useful. I hope you will keep dishing them out to us. I love your examples, tasty tidbits of encouragement. Thank you.

  7. Ellen says:

    Excellent example! You’ve nailed something that can be complicated — after all, both examples are primarily description. Subtle differences, as you’ve shown here, make all the difference between good writers and great writers. Thanks for the work you do to help the rest of us improve our skills.

  8. deniz says:

    This is perfect, Barbara!
    Going right into my “remember this for edits” binder (which is not so much a binder as a scattered collection of saved emails, printed papers, notes shoved into books and notebooks, etc. etc.)

  9. I have finished the rough draft of Dying to Keep it and I need to eliminate so many words that drag the story down. You comments are really helpful.

  10. Jennifer Harvey says:

    Hi Barbara,

    I’m on my second edit at the moment and this is extremely useful information.

    I am sifting through those prose passages where I have been guilty of this very thing – it’s so easy to do.

    It’s making for a tough second edit though.

    Thanks for this tip and for the great blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>