For every stimulus, you must have a response.
For every response, you must have a stimulus.
When we write novels, we don’t include every word spoken, every action taken, every plan proposed. We include only those elements that either characterize or move the plot forward, or hopefully, both. Therefore, by introducing an element, especially one which is unusual and flags the reader’s attention, we are indicating that it is significant. By that, we assure the reader that this element is worthy of mental tracking. We’re promising that there will be a response to that event or item, and that both stimulus and response will be critical to the story.
This is the classic writing rule known as Chekhov’s Gun, after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. He stated, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Hanging the rifle is the stimulus. Firing it is the response. Implied, then, is that when it goes off, that will be the stimulus to a following action in the plot. As a corollary, you can’t simply have something happen “out of the blue.” You must have a stimulus before a response or your readers will feel set up, asking themselves, “Where did that come from?”
In my book The Secret Keeper, Queen Kateryn Parr responds with anxiety and dread when one of Henry the Eighth’s councilors states publicly that the queen’s religious opinions differ from the king’s approved Six Acts. Because another woman, Anne Askew, was burned at the stake for that very same cause some chapters earlier, we understand, without a word, why Parr is filled with dread. The stimulus – Askew’s “illegal” teaching. The response – her public martyrdom. Because the charges brought about a death, the next stimulus is an accusation of the same against the queen. The response – Parr’s anxiety. This anxiety becomes the next in the chain, a stimulus, and will demand a response from her.
Think of this like a person on overhead monkey bars. Both hands start out at the same place, but then hand over hand, one after another, pass down the overhead bars with both hands meeting on each bar before reaching for the next. Stimulus leads to a response, that response leads to the next stimulus, which leads to response, till the end of the row. Because the events are all connected, your readers will never ask, “Where did that come from?”
Do you make good use of stimulus and response?
- Possible: May or can be; chance
- Plausible: Seemingly worthy of approval or acceptance
- Probable: Likely; more evidence for than against
When writers construct fiction, we’re building a world that exists, at first, only in our imaginations. In order for us to transfer these worlds into the hearts and minds of our readers, we must base our writing upon the solid frame of the tangible world. The people must seem like people we know or have met. The setting must be described so that the reader can smell the jasmine perfume, trace the beloved’s jaw line. Most difficult for novelists is to weave a plot our readers will unquestioningly believe is real. Reluctance to buy into the plot – that is, the reader saying, “Hmm, I don’t believe that” or “That just doesn’t ring true for me” or “Too many coincidences” – is an immediate fiction killer. We do not want to take our readers out of the book world we’ve built; they may not come back! Therefore, the events that transpire in our confections – whether or not they are based on things that “really happened” – must be believable. The events, as they unfold, can be: probable, possible, or plausible.
Probable events are no-brainers. Everyone accepts that this is a likely, believable scenario or action, and there are no flags raised. The reader continues through the situation without doubt. There is no limit to the number of probable events in a book as long as they make sense within the frame of the story.
A certain number of possible events are allowed, too. If you don’t require the reader to accept more than a few possible events, these will have a firm place in the plotting. More than a few, especially at the outset of the book, signals to the reader that the story is contrived and that you’ve twisted things to work for the book, but they don’t seem like they could ever be real.
What happens when you need to make circumstances that are possible into those that are probable, in order to solidly advance your story?
You make them plausible. Like a lawyer building a case, you show evidence, and you do it without too much fanfare. For example, in my current work in progress, I want someone to die of the plague. In order to insure that this death isn’t too convenient, I mention in passing, early in the book, that the plague has been on the increase in recent years. Some chapters later, I have a minor character die of plague – someone who really existed and whom my readers could verify if they wanted to. Later, I kill someone off with plague, but I’ve already taken a possibility and made it plausible by building a case. It may initially raise a flag with my readers, but a quick review of the evidence I’ve quietly marshaled in passing will convince them that it’s probable, and they will read on, undisturbed.