“…in humans, [stimulus and response is] the process whereby sensory stimulation is translated into organized experience. … Among the theoretical models developed to describe the nature of social behaviour, the stimulus–response model (in which every social act is seen as a response to the preceding act of another individual) has been generally found helpful….”
I was preparing to teach my story structure class last week when I came across the words “stimulus and response” in my notes. I always start the class by asking my students what a plot is. They all just shrug and say, “It’s what happens in the book or movie. It’s the story.” Yes. But it’s more than that. It’s an action and a reaction. A stimulus and a response. My typical example is my silly story: I get a headache (stimulus), so I go looking for some aspirin (response). The bottle in the cabinet is empty (stimulus), so I get my purse and shoes and prepare to go to the drug store (response). It’s a really exciting story – more happens, but I won’t bore you with the spaceship and what-not. The point is, there are stimuli and responses throughout my story. It’s what makes up the very simple story, and, it’s what makes up our really complicated stories as well – our novels.
I set out last week to write a short story to be a prequel to Magic In The Storm. Readers wanted to know why Morgan’s mother rejected him so strongly, and I wanted to write about how she and Vallentyne got together in the first place, so I sat down to figure it out all – to plot my story (I’m really a very left-brained writer – I plot out the whole story and do detailed character analysis, etc. before I start write). After a fruitless day in which I figured out a number of different scenarios (some more trite than others), I put away my writing and started to prepare for my class which I had to teach the following evening. Stimulus and response.
What was the stimulus and what was the response in the story I was trying to write? Well, I knew what the response was – Tatiana (Morgan’s mother) is so furious that he’s male when he’s born, that she wants to kill the infant immediately. That’s a pretty strong response! With the response in mind, I tried to figure out what the stimulus might be. I can tell you, it took me the better part of the week to come up with a good plot, and then, as always, after I had figured it all out, my husband emailed me (he’s away on business, but, bless the man, is still thinking about me and my story) and came up with something even better. So I had to trash all that I had done (luckily, I’d only written the first two scenes). So now I’ve got an even better stimulus and I just have to work out the details of Tatiana’s response to get to the end result (her hatred of her son).
But it still boils down to the basic question – what is the stimulus (In Magic In The Storm, it is that Morgan has less than one month to figure out how to develop his full powers before he turns 21, otherwise there will be dire consequences) and what is my protagonist’s response (Morgan tries to figure out how his powers are increasing, whether they will continue to do so and how to make them do so faster – in time for his birthday).
Try this – figure out what the stimulus and response are for the story that you’re writing (or reading). Define them in a simplified way and see where that gets you. Does it make the story easier to understand? Does it help you to figure out what your characters need to do and where they need to go? Does it help you figure out that tangled web of ribbons that is your plot? It should. Tell me how it goes for you.