Order in fiction is one of those things that we may think goes without saying – until we find we have inadvertently made the error in our own novel. Let’s look at a few examples and I’ll show you what I mean.
Stimulus and Response
Simple transactions happen every moment of every day. The glass of water almost tips over; in a flash you grab it to set it aright. Your cell rings; you reach to answer it. For every stimulus there is a response.
In your story, when you show a stimulus, you must show a response. And vice versa. When you want a certain response, you must provide the stimulus that will cause it. At the risk of sounding cut-and-dried, or mechanical, or formulaic, this is one of the basic building blocks of a novel.
Generally speaking, the response is fairly straight forward. When Joe, the boss, offers Mike, the applicant, a job – Mike says yes. Stimulus and response.
When you have a straightforward stimulus/response, remember these three guidelines. Make sure they are presented:
- In the proper order and
- Close together (so the connection between the two is not masked)
A man and woman spend the evening together in a romantic setting. Later, when alone, the man weeps bitterly and attempts to take his own life. The reader is lost. What’s happening here? This beginning novelist, thinking he was building suspense failed to explain that this was a devout Catholic priest who was now agonizing over his actions. Clarity of response has been lost.
In the Proper Order:
Oops. This kind of action writing gives the response first, the stimulus second. Let’s try this:
Gunshots exploded sending Casey tumbling to the ground.
Now it makes more sense.
And while on this subject, avoid clauses that denote simultaneity. This might include “while…,” “as he…,” and “at the same time as….” Do things happen at the same exact moment in real life? Of course. But fiction must be better than life! Remember, a reader is not following the action in real life! Order is imperative.
In plot development sequence, beware of fitting in narrative descriptions in the midst of stimulus and response. For instance a scene is presented where son Jimmy is in the basement working on his science project. His mom comes halfway down the basement stairs blows her cool and starts yelling at Jimmy.
From there the author moves into a dissertation explaining that Mom has suffered with a nervous disorder from childhood and it causes her to be short-tempered. After a couple of pages of those details, we learn that Jimmy has failed to go to the pharmacy to pick up Mom’s meds. Now we know, at least in part, why Mom is out of sorts. However, by the time the stimulus/response pattern is fully revealed, the reader has lost interest.
What happened? The stimulus and response were too far apart.
More on Order in Fiction Next Time
In my next post, Fiction Must have Order Part II, we’ll touch on a few more aspects of the stimulus / response patterns and how to make them work for you to achieve order in your novel.
Re-release of the fourth book in my Tulsa Series (Return to Tulsa) originally published by Barbour Publishing in 1995, now available on Kindle and Nook. Return to Tulsa is historical fiction set against the backdrop of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Check it out HERE.