Monday, October 15, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 1

In my last post I promised to introduce the basics of Jack Bickham’s ideas from his book Scene & Structure because I believe most writers ignore this simple concept. In an age where average people don’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences (or, at least, they seem to think that they should be able to do anything they want without suffering any consequences), I’m not sure we can assume that any of us really understands how to apply this to our writing.

Cause and effect -- or, as Bickham calls them, stimulus and response -- might be thought of in this way:


That is, something happens first (stimulus) and then something happens as a result (response). For example: I throw a ball, you catch it; you push on the door, it opens; we elect congressmen, they spend our money irresponsibly. All are examples of stimulus and response.

Simple enough, right?

But there are several aspects of this little "transaction" that Bickham says may have slipped past our notice:
  1. Stimulus and response are all EXTERNAL actions that we can see.
  2. They happen in a specific order, and that sequence shouldn’t be reversed without a reason.
  3. If you have one, you must have the other.
  4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
  5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
Let’s take a brief look at all of these to see how they affect our writing.

How often have you been told that your writing should “show, not tell”? Numbers 1 & 2 speak to this truism. Both the stimulus and the response are actions that you can see, that you can show in your writing. In the examples I gave earlier (throwing the ball, opening the door, etc.), you could’ve taken a movie camera and captured both stimulus and response on film. The order in which they happen makes sense; you would never, for example, see someone catch the ball before it was thrown.

So a proper understanding of stimulus and response can automatically help us write more visually!

But suppose we reverse the order? Instead of “John tossed the ball and Ben caught it,” supposed we wrote “Ben caught the ball when John tossed it”? We have now changed the emphasis of what happened. In the first case, the emphasis is on the flow of action; the story is moving along quickly and we don’t want to break the pace. But in the second case, the emphasis is on Ben’s response; the pace of action is slowed and we throw a spotlight on Ben. Obviously, you would only do this for a specific reason. (Bickham goes into great detail about using this simple technique for a wide variety of purposes, which I don’t have room to write about in this short post. However, just understanding this method of creating emphasis should help you make better choices about how you write your story.)

It’s very common for writers to mismatch stimulus and response, and number 3 speaks to this. An example Bickham uses is this: I toss you the ball, and you respond by saying, “Nice day!” WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BALL?!? Your vocal response may classify as an external action, but it doesn’t really correspond to the stimulus. If, when I toss you the ball, YOU CATCH IT and then say, “Nice day for a game of catch!”, not only have you properly responded to the stimulus, but your statement constitutes a new stimulus to which I’ll have to respond. (And yes, you actually need to write that you caught the ball-- especially for children, who may not automatically make the connection. After all, you could have dropped it or I might have thrown it right past you. How will your young reader know if you aren't clear?)

Numbers 4 and 5 may be a little less obvious, but no less important. We’re used to seeing a response happen quickly after its stimulus. If too much time passes between stimulus and response, we may not even recognize that the two are connected. Sometimes things happen where the response doesn’t happen immediately -- as when a worker, who has patiently endured an abusive boss for years, suddenly walks into work and shoots him. This sort of behavior confuses everybody... regardless of whether it’s fiction or real life.

Obviously something internal is going on here as well. How do we deal with that when stimulus and response focuses focuses on external action?

I'll talk about that in the next post.

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