Plot: cause and effect becomes stimulus and response


Cause and effect

Reader accept blind luck in real life because explanation aren’t always obtainable. In fiction, readers demand credibility for every aspect. This helps the reader suspend disbelief and settle into the fictional dream. It also gives the reader hope that, maybe, the chaos they experience in real life also makes some kind of sense. It implies life isn’t meaningless and suggests there is some degree of control to their fate. In storytelling, background (cause) leads to plot development (effect) and vice versa.

Everything must follow a clean cause-and-effect pattern. It should be predictable, but only from hindsight. The cause-and-effect story allows the reader to follow the storyline from page one. The emotional arc is the story that settles into the heart of the reader and keeps him reading. There are two levels of cause-and-effect

1 Surface: Plot. One event leads to the next.
2 Deep: Story. The cause-and-effect domino effect that explains why the protagonist does what he does.

Stimulus and response are a form of cause and effect. In fiction, they make the story specific and immediate. Do not assume the reader will fill in the blanks himself. You must show both the stimulus and completion of the response. For example:

(Stimulus) Sam pierced a sausage with a fork.
(Response) Joe snatched the fork out of Sam’s hand.

When the stimulus-response relationship is complicated, clear things up with internalization. This is a feeling-thought process that takes place between the stimulus and the response. The pattern of every stimulus-response relationship is in fact:


Action – Reaction – Decision

Showing the internalization makes a strange response credible and understandable. For example:

(Stimulus) Sam pierced a sausage with a fork.
(Internalization) How dare he steal my food? How many times must he steal my lunch? I’m fed up with this.
(Response) Joe snatched the fork out of Sam’s hand.

Always remember :

  • Stimulus must be external – that is, action or dialogue, something that could be witnessed if the transaction were on a stage.
  • Response must also be external in the same way.
  • For every stimulus, you must show a response.
  • For every desired response, you must provide a stimulus.
  • Response usually must follow stimulus at once.
  • When response to stimulus is not logical on the surface, you must ordinarily explain it.

Common mistakes

The points to be amplified here, however, remain constant: If something is to be a stimulus, it must clearly be a stimulus, and it must happen right now. If something is to be a response, it must clearly be a response to the stimulus immediately preceding it, and it must happen right now.

To put all this another way, you can mess up stimulus-response transactions three ways:

  1. You can show a stimulus and then show no external response (or perhaps one that doesn’t fit or doesn’t make sense);
              Having been angry for days, Joe punched Sam.
    Stimulus was not shown. It was internal, lacking immediacy.
              Rick hit Bill. Bill was surprised.
    Response was not shown. Being surprised is an internalization.
  2. You can show a character response when no stimulus (or no credible one) for it has been shown; or
               Joe turned after hearing the gunshot.
    What was the stimulus? What was the response? The sentence, in terms of stimulus and response, is backwards. It should read:
               Hearing the shot, Joe turned.
  3. You can put so much story time between stimulus and response that the logical relationship between the two events is no longer evident.

Bickman, J. M. (1993) Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.