Saturday, March 2, 2013

Keep Your Writing Active: The Motivating Stimulus and Reaction Unit

Motivating Stimulus: Anything external to the focal character to which he must react.

Reaction: An appropriate response to the motivating stimulus (through feeling, action, and / or speech).

I'm going to keep this simplified for the ease of understanding, but here's a few cues to help:

A motivating stimulus can be anything from a word, to something falling off a shelf, to an apocalyptic event. But, whatever it is, it must first and foremost be 1) organic to your story, and 2) stimulating enough to require a response.

Without conscious thought, motivating stimulus and reaction is the rhythm of human life. (I.e. We wake up, we open our eyes. We have to go to the bathroom, we do. We're thirsty, we get a drink).

When dramatic events occur, consider that our reactions tend to build on each other. When a real person is shocked, their response is often fairly subdued at first, then builds as their understanding and acceptance of what is occuring develops. (I.e. A person is shot in the street in front of us. Most will freeze, then either rush to help, or run away. Shaking, screaming, hysteria, etc, occurs seconds or minutes after the event. Not in the immediate aftermath).

The problem with a lot of fiction is that it attempts to step outside the realistic bounds of motivating stimulus and reaction.

Example: Woman tells her boyfriend of two years she's breaking up with him.

Normal life response: Boyfriend feels shock and fear. He says, "WHAT?!", demanding an explanation. (Note: You've got a motivating stimulus that required response, which sparked another motivating stimulus requiring response. See the natural cycle?)

Unfortunate fictional response: Boyfriend immediately and without preamble, drops into depressed state. He pleads with his girlfriend not to leave him and threatens suicide if she does.

The problem with the "unfortunate" response is that the male character's emotion is too strong too fast. It hasn't had the natural time to build. If they were to argue for two hours first, with her eventually leaving, declaring she's never coming back, then his response would become more realistic.

The other potential hazard of motivating stimulus and reaction, is the order in which things occur.

In real life we react to events in a specific order. It's physiological. Our bodies react first - we feel. Then our brains kick in reflexively and we can think and move. Finally we're able to speak (usually).

That entire process can occur inside a second. We don't always portray all of those responses. But all of them occur and they always occur in that order.

Example: A young couple are making out in the girl's bedroom. Her father throws the door open and yells "What is going on in here?!"

Normal life response: Adrenalin floods the girl's bloodstream. She shoves her boyfriend back and jumps away from him, then whirls to face her father. She shrieks "It isn't as bad as it looks, Dad!" as she tries to straighten her clothes. (Note: Not all of these would need to be depicted, but I'm using them to demonstrate the point).

Fictional response: Girls says "Oh, #$%@!", pushes her boyfriend away and starts straightening her clothes, saying "It isn't as bad as it looks, Dad!"

Now, the responses themselves are the same. But the author has done a disservice to their story and reader. Because the reader isn't aware of this technique of reflecting "real" responses, they won't identify the falsity in the order of the second response. In fact, in this specific scene, they probably won't even think twice.

But when a book is chock-full of unrealistic and out-of-order responses, you'll get feedback from readers like "I just couldn't get into it,"; or "I dont' know why, it just didn't feel real to me,"; or "I couldn't relate to the main character..."

So, in order to ensure our fiction is truly believable, we have a four step process:

1. Identify what we need the character to do (or where we need them to arrive).
2. Identify an organic and realistic stimulus (for the story world) that will drive them in that direction.
3. Create a response to the stimulus that is realistic in both its depth and the order of reactions.
4. Ensure the end of the response is itself a motivating stimulus (thus kicking the entire cycle back into gear).

Does that make sense?

Your Turn: Any questions? Any points you don't understand? Have you heard of the motivating stimulus and response unit before?



  1. I haven't heard of motivating stimulus and response unit before. After reading this post, it makes sense. I'm going to reread my manuscript and look for unrealistic emotional responses by my characters. Thanks for the tips.

  2. This is FANTASTIC. Really. I heard of this before, but I needed the reminder! Thank you! I NEED to remember this.

  3. Ha, glad to be of service. And trust me, we all need it *Sheepish grin*

  4. TThis was great, Aimee! I think I've read a few of thes novels where the reactions were all wrong, and I probably didn't even notice, but couldn't "get into" the novel because of it.

    Wonderful content!