Writers in the Storm

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October 16, 2013

King of Dramatic Impact: Don’t Skip This Key Element of Fiction!

by Tiffany Lawson Inman

Going through life, we are always in a state of suspense. Mmmmm…yummy, suspense! According to Oxford dictionary: a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Life moments creating dramatic impact, small and large.

What will happen next?  Is the question on a second to second, minute to minute, day to day loop in our human brain.

I watched my husband play with our baby yesterday.  There was a lot of giggling going on, so I tore myself away from the computer to see what was happening.  She was on the floor and my hubby was sitting at her feet as if she was getting her diaper changed.  Hubby would lift one of her feet and slowly bend over with an open mouth, going in to nibble on her tootsies , but before he got his chompers on her foot, he would put the first foot down and start slowly going for the other foot and so on.

So, why was she giggling if he wasn’t actually biting her foot? Because she didn’t know he wasn’t going to bite. She was prepared for something to happen, but she didn’t know exactly what. She was watching her little story unfold from moment to moment and the anticipation was making her react.  The anticipation was making her sit forward in her baby brain and pay very close attention to what was going to happen next, each second of foot-biting-drama bringing her closer to a the climax.

This is what we live for, the tasty moments surrounding authentic action and reaction.

What will happen next? Is also what drives readers through a novel.  You may not realize it, but suspense flows through ALL GENRES of fiction.  There are small and large levels of suspense in every novel.

  • Small  - Your reader goes from one line to the next wondering how your character will react to what is happening.
  • Medium – Your reader moves from one scene to the next wondering how your character will handle the conflict and disaster, what conflict will be next, and will the character reach their goals with morals intact, with their lives?

Sounds easy, right?   I mean there are plenty of books on the subject. I’m sure you have read them ALL. Those craft books refer to it as cause/effect, stimulus/response, motivation/reaction, action/reaction or scene/sequel.   Writers should just be able to pick up a copy of Dwight Swain’s, Techniques of a Selling Writer, read it and, POOF! The most compelling fiction on the market will flow into the laptop with a wiggle of your nose.

But it’s not that easy, is it?  Just because a writer knows this pattern exists doesn’t mean they know how important it is in their fiction. And knowing about a key element in fiction certainly doesn’t mean every writer knows how to apply it.

Jack Bickham states in his book, Scene and Structure:

“…you can mess up stimulus-response transactions in 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);
  2. You can show a character response when no stimulus (or no credible one) for it has shown; or
  3. You can put so much story time between stimulus and response that the logical relationship between events is no longer evident.”

So, what happens to your reader’s suspense when one or three of the above issues are implemented in your novel? It turns into frustration, confusion, or distrust for the author to provide the story in a compelling way.  Why would anyone want to read in that frame of mind?

Authors aren’t the only writers paying attention to cause and effect. Playwrights and screenwriters live and breathe motivation and reaction.  Why? Because if the audience sees an action that should affect a character and that character doesn’t react, then the story will cease to move forward until a reaction happens.  The audience sticks on why there wasn’t a reaction and will then believe the story to be inauthentic, characters not as real, and mentally they will hit the speed bump and check out.

My point? Stimulation/response is a KEY ELEMENT IN FICTION.

Here is an example of compelling, well written, stimulus/response excerpt from #1 NYT bestselling author, Harlan Coben, in his novel,  Six Years. For the first nine chapters of this story, the main character has been wondering to the point of obsession, the whereabouts of an ex-girlfriend. The love of his life. The reader’s state of suspense has been growing steadily with each new chunk of twisted mystery thrown in his path. And then this happens:

Then I saw the sender’s e-mail address:


                I stared at it until my eyes watered. There was a rushing in my ears. Everything around me was silent and too still. I kept staring but the letters didn’t change.


                It took me no time to see what those letters meant: Redemption’s Son by Joseph Arthur—the album Natalie and I listened to in the café.

                The subject was empty. My hand found the mouse. I tried to get the cursor over the e-mail so I could open it, but first I had to control my shake. I took a deep breath and willed my hand still. The room remained a hushed quiet, almost expectantly so. I moved the cursor over the e-mail and clicked on it.

                The e-mail stopped my heart.

                There, on my screen, were four words. That was all, just four words, but those four words sliced through my chest like a reaper’s scythe, making it nearly impossible to breathe. I collapsed back on the chair, lost, as the four words on the screen stared back at me:

                You made a promise.


PRIME example of amplified stimulus/response.  Obviously this is an emotional point in the story. Thick emotional reaction to a sliver of very sharp stimulus.

What did Harlan do to make it apparent to the reader that this was a BIG deal?  He showed each facet of his character’s response.

What does that do for the reader? Their eyes fly over the words, taking in the full picture, reveling in the dramatic impact of what is happening and almost salivating to find out…what happens next.

Keeping in mind this character’s emotional investment in finding out where his ex-girlfriend is throughout the first 9 chapters, what if Harlan wrote this instead:

Then I saw the sender’s e-mail address:


                It took me no time to see what those letters meant: Redemption’s Son by Joseph Arthur—the album Natalie and I listened to in the café.

                I moved the cursor over the e-mail and clicked on it.

                The email read:  You made a promise.


This is an example of showing a stimulus and then showing no external response.  Skipping it all together. Not a good thing. Harlan’s readers would be screaming, “What just happened? Did Jake hit his head before he read this? An email, from her?! He should be going crazy right now! Man, I’m confused.”

Now, while I’m editing and teaching, more often than not, the issues I see getting in the way of reader suspense have to do with number three on Bickham’s list: “You can put so much story time between stimulus and response that the logical relationship between events is no longer evident.”

What if Harlan wrote it like this:

Then I saw the sender’s e-mail address:


                It took me no time to see what those letters meant: Redemption’s Son by Joseph Arthur—the album Natalie and I listened to in the café.

                The café where we first met. She was showing some of her art and sat in the corner with sunglasses on.  I thought that was really a pretentious way to sit in a café, especially when it was dark outside.  But then hours later we sat in the corner table talking, laughing, eating Cookie’s famous scones and listening to music.  Redemption’s Son was the one album that pushed us deeper into each other’s lives.  I think the scones almost tasted better after we listened to that album.  And then there they were, those letters. The abbreviation I wrote on the napkin to remember the name of the album, RSbyJA.  She thought it was cute that I wanted to remember it. 

I stared at the screen until my eyes watered. There was a rushing in my ears. Everything around me was silent and too still. I kept staring but the letters didn’t change.


Ack!  His reaction doesn’t matter anymore, does it?  Getting pulled into the mini-story about the café, the reader is forced to imagine different scenarios, forced to try and connect emotionally to another part of the story.  And when we finally get back to the response, the words have lost all dramatic impact.

As Swain says in Chapter Three of Techniques of The Selling Writer, “When you start to sneeze, you snatch for your handkerchief right now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. The same way, think of each stimulus your focal character receives as a demand for immediate action.

Thinking back to my hubby and baby playing “anticipate the foot munch.”  What would she have done if he picked up her foot leaned in for a nibble and then started a conversation with me. Her game would have been over. The anticipation for her daddy’s next move would have vanished.

Disappointed baby.

When a writer commits that kind of crime in their novel, the same thing happens. Inauthentic drama. Your reader will stop wondering what happens next, and they will stop reading.

Disappointed reader.

Don’t let this happen to you!

One of my biggest pet peeves as an editor is the backwards stimulation response, “I turned my head toward the yard when my brother started screaming.”  And the simultaneous stimulation response, “Margo laughed as I started to take off my shirt.”  Annoying, isn’t it?

I want to thank all the writers at WITS for letting me jump on every month (sometimes twice a month) to blast you with some fiction know-how. I love teaching, and this is a way I get to do a mini-mini-lesson and be social with all of you! Toss me a Hello in the comments.

And no, I didn’t forget! Here is your mini-challenge for this post: Can you think of a backwards or simultaneous stimulation response that you have read lately? Maybe one you found in your own WIP?  EEK! Show it to us! How did you fix it?  

I’ll draw a name from the comments and the winner gets a free slot in one of my upcoming courses:  January’s Action and Fighting in Fiction: Writing Authentic Choreography With Precision and Bite or December’s Madness to Method: Using Acting Techniques to Invigorate Your Writing and Make Each Moment Oscar Worthy.

About Tiffany

Tiffany Lawson Inman, headshotTiffany Lawson Inman (@NakedEditor) claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development.

She teaches Action, Choreography, Emotional Impact, Violence, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in 2014. As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to WITS to see Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Get caught up here and read her most recent WITS blog posts: Emotional Barrier in Fiction: Why is it so important for you to learn how to cross it? (Part One) and Emotional Barrier in Fiction: After You Cross It, What’s Next? (Part Two)

50 comments on “King of Dramatic Impact: Don’t Skip This Key Element of Fiction!”

  1. You know, Tiffany, this is so submliminal to me that I read books like Harlan's, and marvel, but your breaking it down as simple as Scoutberry and her foot really helped 'show' it to me! Awesome post. Thanks so much!

  2. So simple and yet so hard to see sometimes in one's own work. My forehead is flat from banging it on the table. Thanks for the post!

  3. Hi Tiffany,

    I love your posts - you are right on about stimulation and response. So easy to get it backwards! I also loved your posts on crossing emotional barriers. I might have to take your course!

    Enjoy that baby!


    1. Maureen, hello!

      I think writers are just so thrilled to show what they have come up with as the character's response, that they jump the gun sometimes. And then it becomes a habit. Especially the ones using "as, while, when, once, etc." When those words get involved, look out!

      We are 2 weeks into my Madness to Method course right now and wow - BIG things happening with their emotional moments! I've already been moved to tears a few times because of how well I was sucked into their character's responses.

      Ok, I'll stop bragging about my students 🙂 You will just have to come see for yourself! I'll probably be teaching it again in December.

      Thanks for reading today!

  4. Love the way you broke this down Tiffany. I have read books where reaction was lost to far from the original action. It makes the reaction seem like a surprise out of no where.

  5. The time between the stimulation and the response is SO right on. I have to go back to the first 50 pages of my wip because I think I have a scene where there's just too much time in between and the reader isn't going to know what the heck is going on with the response because there's too much of a delay.
    Thank you.

  6. Tiffany, a wonderful post as always and this time you tapped into one of my all-time favorite thriller writers. Even his Myron Bolitar series and the two with Myron's nephew are captivating ... but his straight-nail-biting-hair-pulling stories from the first to the last are the best example of what truly great story tellers can do to keep us awake not willing to leave the book until The End. Thanks 🙂

  7. Thanks for this post, Tiffany. The example from Coben’s novel is another good reminder for me that fiction is subjective. I found that passage overwritten, and skipped ahead to find out what was in the email. I don’t really enjoy novels that focus on what’s happening “in the moment” – which is why I found “Madame Bovary” positively unreadable. One of the hardest things to come to terms with as an author is that reader taste varies widely, and you can’t control it. What some readers consider the perfect pace is too fast for some and too slow for others. If you try to please everyone, you will drive yourself mad.

    1. Andrea - yes - this is and over the top example, I used it for that reason, because the stimulus response was amplified.

      Please don't discount a Harlen Coben novel because of this example. ALL of his writing isn't like this. He chooses when he needs to go deeeep POV and when he doesn't. Hmmm... taking note - next time I'll use a few different levels of examples so I don't scare away a writer like you! 🙂 LOL

  8. Great job making this concept clear. I know I know this. I hope I follow it. I'm revising a YA fantasy ms right now and need to keep an eye out for anything jarring to the reader. Will be following your blog for further instruction. 🙂

  9. As a new writer just beginning my first novel, this is great information for me. As you said, I've read it in various forms in other craft articles / books, but your breakdown makes sense in a way I should be able to remember. Thanks!

  10. Oh my gosh Tiffany, I could just give you a hug right now. I got your email last night and thought, uh, I need some translation here. I do not yet speak the language of your people. lol. I guess I sometimes get confused between RUE and stimulus response. Yes, I am that new and have a huge learning curve. But I really appreciate the way you broke it down. You're a very gifted teacher. You were living in the moment and your stimulus response was to stay and watch your hubby and baby rather than run for your phone to take a picture. Those are moments that you don't want to miss. Yet, we all benefited from your experience as it served as a wonderful example to help get your point across. Okay, back to work. Although I fear that I may never catch up. Thank you for your patience with me Tiffany. 🙂

  11. great post! Last month I stopped reading a novel for exactly this reason. It was a large-scale, recurring stimulus/response problem; her characters were dealing with a lot of bad-guy action, and yet their responses to the stimulation were totally off, or completely missing. For example: I've read romantic suspenses before where the hero and heroine "get it on" in the middle of the story, even when they are on the run from the bad guys, but the authors always made it believable (e.g., they were in a safe house for the night, and couldn't get back to their escape until morning for one reason or another, and end up passing the time in each other's arms, etc.). But in this novel, the hero had just woken up from unconsciousness and discovered that he and his heroine were being kept prisoner in the house of his enemy. And then they boink. WHAT??? This guy's a Navy SEAL, i don't care how horny he is, there's no way his reaction to discovering himself captured it to boink. No no no no. Anyway, thanks for the great post! Will share.

    1. Laura -

      TOOO funny. Yes. Those are the too stupid to live moments (or too stupid to boink) where you just have to wonder what the author was thinking to write a section like that. I am a big fan of authentic character reactions. From fantasy to humorous romance. I still think the reader deserves that taste of reality through the characters themselves. To each their own, right? 🙂

  12. Here's an example:

    It was suddenly all so clear, it made so much sense and I knew I could use the information to better my own work. The post about creating and maintaining dramatic impact was fantastic!

    Is that the sort of thing you mean? A bit clunky but I hadn't read anything that made me go, "what the?" lately. Maybe books with those dodgy bits don't get published?

    1. Littlemiss,

      You'd be surprised!

      More like: My shoulder hurt as soon as he punched it. or Tara's nerves sizzled when he touched her thigh. or, Sam moved his hand to make room for the falling debris.

      Yesterday I read at least 7 similar examples in published books. 🙁

      Now you will be on the lookout, I'm sure!

  13. Yet another fantastic post! You really have a knack for taking general advice and breaking it down into concrete elements that give us those "ah ha" moments. So helpful.

    I'm guilty of sometimes putting too much "junk" between the stimulus and response. I'm nearly finished with the first draft of my current WIP, so I'm happy to have this in my pocket as I prepare to make a monster set of revisions.


    1. Glad to see you back, Jamie! And Woooooosh-------------------> another "ah ha" moment at your fingertips!!

      OOoh a monster set of revisions, just in time for NANOWRIMO! Does that mean you will indeed have a book finished in a month?

      What a rush that would be. 🙂

    1. Ooooh, Alina, "as" is not one of my favorite words.

      It allows the sequence to not matter because the author is usually trying to portray simultaneity. And yes - it makes events get jumbled up in the readers mind. So go back through, find your "as" and rework them so the action is moving forward. It's usually AS easy AS swapping to AND. I grabbed my jacket and walked out the door instead of I grabbed my jacket as I walked out the door.

      Picky? You betcha!


      1. Post Tiffany Method to Madness, I always perform a search-and-destroy mission for "as." If it's not followed by "if", it's slaughtered.

        Both you and Margie snapped my garter on response before stimulus. So many times, it's become second nature to ask then answer the stimulus/response question during first draft mode. Those garter bruises hurt.

        Love your posts. Love Naked Editor. Hugs to Scout!

  14. Another great post! I keep the action/reaction sequence in mind while I write. Or at least when I go back the next day and read the previous day's work. It's so important. Number 3 is a big one for me as I tend to want to fill in backstory for a person's reaction to something.

    Thanks for the info!

    PICK ME!!!! 🙂

    1. Hiya, Claire!

      Number 3 is a big issue in scenes you want to move forward. I've noticed a lot of these issues in particular genres, I can't seem to get into those books, and they aren't usually on the best sellers list for long, I'm guessing because they never feel like they are going anywhere.

      I'm glad to hear you backtrack to edit! It's not fun, but it is totally necessary 🙂

      I can't wait to see what you are writing now!

  15. Oh Tiffany,
    I have enjoyed Harlan Coben (thanks to Mom Margie), and always marveled at they way he gets me so deep into the story. Sometimes I'm so into the story I forget to go back and say "how did he do it?" Thanks for breaking it down with a "life" moment. And I'm pretty darn sure I have done #3 in my opening scene of my book. I can almost picture it. Got to jump on the computer tonight and fix that! Thanks for another great post!


  16. This is kind of like tuning into an episode of America's Test Kitchen for the first time with the desire to start cooking. Reading through the post and seeing all the science behind the art... craft, is incredibly intimidating and I'm a bit worried that I get so caught up in the structure, I'd lose sight of the end product: edible food.

    Regardless, just like ATK's end product, it looks to good not to try!

  17. I've never heard it called backwards stimulation response before but that makes so much sense and it is really annoying. I know I'm guilty of it in my WIP in lots of places but I plan on fixing those niggles after I type 'The End'. Great post!

  18. As I was getting ready to post the winner for this week's blog post, I scrolled back to see if the name I fished out of the hat was a double winner from a previous post. Lo n behold I realized I NEVER had a winner from THIS blog! YIKES!

    SO, I tossed your names in the hat and ...................................................
    ..................LittleMissW YOU ARE THE WINNER!!!!! I'll hunt down your email address and send you a welcome letter for class, because it starts this week!

    Here is the link to Madness to Method, for any of you that want to make your December count and learn how to break down your Emotional Barrier and write write write award winning emotional scenes. http://www.margielawson.com/lawson-writers-academy-courses/detail/2-writing/96-december-from-madness-to-method-using-acting-techniques-to-invigorate-your-story-and-make-each-moment-oscar-worthy

    Thanks again for reading, participating, and rocking the comments over at WITS!

  19. […] Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’ve hammered in a few times the simple fact that action and suspense are made up of action and reaction, cause/ effect, stimulus/response. I know I have talked about it in most of my Crossing the Physical Barrier series and probably all of the Crossing Emotional Barrier series, and it was the main issue in my King of Dramatic Impact article. […]

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