Friday, October 19, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 2

The last post dealt with the simpler, purely external versions of stimulus and response... but what about internally-motivated actions?

The fourth and fifth characteristics of properly-presented stimulus and response actions looked like this:
4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
While these two “rules” can be broken through improper handling, they can also present a problem when the character’s motivations truly were internal. In such cases, Jack Bickham adds an intermediate step, like so:


This internalization constitutes a pause in the action and allows us to see what’s going on in the characters mind. For example, we might see a character tense up and begin to act erratically as a stranger walks up, then suddenly run off screaming when the stranger gets within arm’s-reach. Such a stimulus/response action makes no sense to us; however, adding a short internalization (just a paragraph is enough in this case) where our character associates the stranger with someone who traumatized them in the past allows us to understand their apparently irrational reaction.

As with the simpler stimulus/response sequence in our last post, this more complex reaction can be applied to anything from the simplest action to the larger movements within a story’s plot.

A classic example of this can be seen in Die Hard. (I know it's not a children's example, but it's one I know most everybody is familiar with.) At one point in the movie, Hans Gruber (the bad guy) goes upstairs, hoping to find his missing detonators... and runs into John McClane. He introduces himself as Bill Clay, a hostage who managed to get away from his captors. McClane is not fooled but, after an action sequence where McClane is injured and Gruber retrieves his detonators, we enter an internalization scene. McClane wonders why Gruber came upstairs in the first place, and begins searching the upper floors. (Remember the scene with McClane wandering around upstairs, muttering “What were you doing, Hans? What were you doing up here?”) As a result, he finds that the roof has been rigged with explosives.

Here we see a stimulus (Gruber’s trip upstairs), internalization (McClane ponders why), and response (McClane begins his search). His response, in turn, provides a new stimulus for the next action in the plot -- the discovery of the explosives.

That's important, so make sure you understand it. The reason I'm bugging you with this stuff about cause and effect is because once you get the hang of thinking this way, plotting can almost become automatic. Knowing McClane's character as the writers (and we viewers!) do, the only logical next move for McClane was finding a way to stop Hans from blowing up the roof and killing hostages.

In Scene & Structure Jack Bickham calls such an internalization scene a sequel, and suggests that most of the more involved action scenes in your story should be followed by one of these internalization scenes. It allows both the character and the reader a chance to process all the information received during the sequence, as well as enabling the writer to better control the pace of the story. The sequel can be as long or as short as necessary; there is no real rule here beyond making an appropriate choice for your story.

A working knowledge of how stimulus and response works can be a great aid in plotting your story, as it helps you to avoid the structural errors that can cause writers to lose their way when planning a longer piece of fiction... and also helps you avoid confusing your readers.

That's the end of the cause and effect posts. If you want to learn more, get Bickham's book; it's one of the two books I believe should be on every writer's bookshelf. But you've got enough now to help you build better plots for any story you write, whether it's for adults or children.

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