The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction


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.



For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

The Birth of a Novel


To a writer, the most terrifying sight in the world is a blank piece of paper. A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step, according to the Chinese philosopher, but as long as the direction is known, the first step is obvious. A novel begins with a single sentence—but what sentence? The possibilities are infinite; the choice alone can paralyze.

And the sentence matters. Ursula Le Guin once said that first sentences are doors to worlds; it follows that each sentence is the door to a different world. The best ones, I think, awaken readers’ curiosity and make them immediately want to know more. The best lines also convey a sense of the novel’s world and of the voice that will be their guide to it. Here are a few of my favorite opening lines: see if you don’t get a pretty good sense of what worlds they open into…and a lot else besides.

“She had slept naked all her life, and no one knew it.”–Eileen Jensen

“True!-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad?” –E.A. Poe

“There once was a boy by the name of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”– C.S. Lewis.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”–James Cain

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”–Daphne Du Maurier

“Helen Brent had the best-looking legs at the inquest.”–James Gunn

“They were walking along the river path, away from the city, and as far as they knew they were alone.”– Pat Barker

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”–Kafka

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”–Nabakov

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”–Jane Austen

When I still taught fiction writing in brick-and-mortar colleges,  there was an exercise I often used to take the terror out of that blank sheet of paper. I challenged students to write three intriguing sentences: each one the first line to a story they had no intention of writing. I wanted to help free their imaginations by taking away the weight of the endeavor. Since they would never have to follow up on anything in that first sentence, it could be as wild as they wanted. Very often, students ended up writing at least one of those stories. Pulling a sentence out of thin air is actually a means of pulling something out of one’s own unconscious, and the results can be compelling.

One day, while I was waiting for my class to complete this exercise, I filled in the time by doing it myself. This is the first sentence I wrote:

“Even though she’d asked for it, Sam Pollack could not help feeling guilty the day he killed his wife.”

The line seemed to come out of nowhere. I had no idea who Sam Pollack was or why he had just killed his wife. Saying that he “could not help feeling guilty” implied that for some reason he shouldn’t have felt guilty or normally wouldn’t have felt guilty, which was certainly odd. And the ambiguity of his wife having “asked for it” also intrigued me; did it mean she deserved it or she requested it?

I was powerfully curious, but there was no one to ask. The only way to find out was to write the story, a notion I resisted. Starting a novel, which typically takes me several years to complete, isn’t something I undertake lightly. It seemed almost frivolous to base one on a line that just popped into my head. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and over time, other ideas and embryonic characters attached themselves to it.

In the olden days, when writers still did book tours, there was one question that invariably came up in every Q and A: “Where do your ideas come from?” I used to say that they came from a mail-order idea service, but that was a lie. The truth is, story ideas are all around, like pollen in the air. The trick is picking one that can successfully cross-pollinate with an inner obsession, because it takes more than one strand of DNA to grow a novel.

I liked the line I’d written in class. It hung around, but it didn’t implant until it combined with a character who’d been lurking in the back of my mind and a setting I’d been wanting to explore. When that happened, I suddenly had a viable embryo, which grew into a novel called Rowing in Eden.

What are some of your favorite opening lines, either read or written?


A few notes: ROWING IN EDEN has just been reissued by Simon & Schuster in paperback and ebook. You can read a sample or order a copy via Amazon or B&N.

I teach fiction writing for Writers Digest University and in my own online school of writing, the Next Level Workshop. The workshops are small (eight students max), intense and, by my students’ accounts, effective. The next workshop will be  Revising Fiction, to be offered late in 2012. The best way of getting into any of my workshops is by getting on my e-mailing list, because when classes open for registration, the first announcement goes to those people. If you’d like to learn more or get on that list, please contact me.

Next week I have an interview with Mika Ashley Hollinger, an extraordinary writer whose first novel, 20 years in the making, was just published to great acclaim by Random House. Also coming soon: interviews with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon; e-book pioneer and publisher, Richard Curtis; and literary agent Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. Sign up for RSS feed or e-mail notification if you’d like to be sure of catching those.

Writing Workshop

Just  a quick fyi for those who’ve asked to be kept informed. I’m teaching an online Writers Digest University course called “Focus on the Novel” that starts next week, on June 21st. It’s a good, hands-on workshop for writers who want some help launching a novel, or strengthening the foundations of one, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors. WDU allows me to keep the class size small, so I can give thought and attention to each participant’s work. After this course, I’ll be taking a break from teaching for 4-5 months while I work on the sequel to my upcoming novel, so if you’ve been thinking of taking a workshop, this might be the time.

And speaking of that upcoming novel, which Viking will publish early in 2013, I’m delighted to announce that it now has a title:  A DANGEROUS FICTION. What do you think?