Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Getting the Best Response From Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Don't confuse your readers by mixing up what happens when and why.

When one of my nieces was little, she'd tell me stories about her day. They usually made no sense, and not just because she was seven. She'd always tell me what she did before she told me why she did it.

"I cried on the swings, because it wasn't fair and they yelled at me."

It often took multiple follow-up questions to get the real story that she got scolded for playing in a sandbox she'd been told three times not to play in (the reason why involved a cat mistaking it for a litter box).  

Granted, few writers write a novel like a seven year old telling a story, but mixing up the stimulus/response structure happens all the time. Usually it's a small mistake that readers can figure out and move on from, but sometimes it's a big error and leaves them confused.

The stimulus/response structure is how readers process information. 

The character does something (or something is done to them), they react to it, and they feel something about that reaction.
Bob threw the ball. Jane missed the ball. Jane cried.
Simplistic, yes, but this is the chain of events and it's easy to follow along and understand. But we don't always heed this structure, and often, we don't even realize we're doing it:
Leslie jumped as a girl screamed.
Seems like a perfectly good sentence, right? But look closer.

The scream is what causes Leslie to jump in the first place. Action/reaction. Stimulus/response. Putting the jump first is out of order and Leslie is jumping before the reader hears Leslie scream. 

The reader has to pause—even if it’s just for a moment—to figure this out. A moment might not seem like much, but anything that pulls the reader out of the story is a chance to lose that reader.

It's also a telling red flag, since readers are being told the reason why Leslie jumped, as if the narrator knew the entire time even though it hadn't happened yet. However, if the narrator does know, or this is an omniscient narrator, it could work just fine.

So what happens if we change it to…
Leslie jumped when a girl screamed.
Same problems. “When” feels even more told to me, because now it's explaining the action and doesn't show Leslie jumping at all. It also has the same reaction before the action problem that “as” does. 

Let's try flipping it.
A girl screamed. Leslie jumped.
This is the natural action/reaction format we’re used to that shows the actions and keeps the reader on board with what's going on. There’s a stimulus, and a response to that stimulus.

But it's a little flat, and doesn't make the most compelling sentence. While it might work for a fast-paced exchange meant to sound staccato, too much action/reaction like this in a row starts to sound mechanical and boring. 

What we need is the emotional response to break it up. What Leslie does after she jumps.

(Here's more with Two Words That Lead to a Stronger Novel)

The emotional response is one of the better tools a writer has to control pacing. 

How much internalization and what the point of view character is thinking about determines how fast the scene will read. A fast scene might use short sentences and quick internal thoughts. A slower pace might give Leslie time to think about the scream and why she jumped or was frightened. 

That emotional response is also a fantastic way to keep readers in the head of the point of view character so the action scenes don’t feel dry with a lot of external description of the action. 

Let’s look at a snippet with action, reaction, but no emotional response.
A girl screamed and Leslie dropped to the floor, hands over her head, her whole body shaking. Footsteps echoed in the hall, coming closer. Sirens rose above the crying and the frantic whispers. Doors slammed, then more screams. Tears burned Leslie’s eyes and she wiped them away.
Another scream, right outside the door.
Did you start to drift out right about “doors slammed?” Even though this should be exciting, it feels detached with so many details in a row without hearing from the point of view character. That’s the strength of a good emotional response. It can keep the reader in the point of view character's head and firmly in the story.
A girl screamed and Leslie dropped to the floor, hands over her head, her whole body shaking. That thing's going to eat us! Footsteps echoed in the hall, coming closer. This couldn’t be happening, not to her. Tears burned Leslie’s eyes and she wiped them away. She had to see it. Had to know.

Another scream, right outside the door.
Odds are you're more interested now. Leslie has her emotional response to keep you connected to her–she drops, she thinks about getting eaten by something, she’s shaking–then the action continues. 

It’s fast paced, but what if we spend longer in her head and less on the action details?
A girl screamed and Leslie dropped to the floor, hands over her head, her whole body shaking. That thing's going to eat us! She’d never find out what might have happened with Peter. Would never see his sweet smile or feel his arms around her shoulders as they walked from class to class. She’d never know if he’d really tried to kiss her yesterday or if it was just one of those moments. It was so unfair! This couldn’t be happening, not to her. Tears burned Leslie’s eyes and she wiped them away.

Another scream, right outside the door.
Feels slower, doesn’t it? That’s not a bad thing if you want to slow the pace down, but if you’re trying to write a quick, breathless scene, pausing for a lot of emotional internalization will do the opposite. 

It can also pull the focus away from the point of the scene and make readers wonder why the point of view character is going on and on about this when that is happening.

(Here's more with Internal Medicine: How Much Internalization is Too Much?)

The trick is to find the right balance between the pace you want, and the emotions you want the reader to feel. 

Since this is a girl worried about getting eaten by monsters and all the things she’ll never get to do, using those fears to help raise the tension is a nice mix of emotion and action. It’s not just “panic thoughts,” it’s details that make you feel for this girl.
A girl screamed and Leslie dropped to the floor, hands over her head, her whole body shaking. That thing's going to eat us! This couldn’t be happening, not to her. Not now. She’d never find out what might have happened with Peter. Her sister would have to face the Beasley twins all alone. Footsteps echoed in the hall, coming closer.
Another scream, right outside the door.
Still fast paced, but the emotion helps build the tension, not deflate it. Even the things Leslie feels lend themselves to “what will happen” questions the reader might also be wondering about. What would have happened with Peter? What will happen with the sister and the twins? Why is now important? The questions give just enough of a pause to let the situation sink in before showing the next danger.

(Here's more with And the Pace is On: Understanding and Controlling Your Pacing)

3 Things to Remember With Stimulus/Response:

1. No one reacts to nothing.  

Keep an eye out for things the character is reacting to that haven’t happened yet. There’s always a trigger (stimulus) that causes that reaction. Something heard, felt, seen, realized, whatever it is, it's the stimulus that makes the character respond. Searching for the words as, when, before, and after helps find potential stimulus/response issues.

2. Reactions trigger thoughts.  

We think about the stuff that's happening to us, even if it's just a flash thought. Internalization helps maintain a personal connection between reader and character, and that keeps the tension tight and the reader reading. Don't forget to keep the descriptions in the character's voice. It helps make that connection when internal dialogue isn't an option.

3. Emotional responses help set the pace.  

How much time does the character have to respond? If the character has little to no time to think, giving them three paragraphs of internalization is going to feel slow and unnecessary. Remember: Fast paced = quick response, slower paced = longer more thoughtful response. 

Writing is all about getting readers to react and respond to our words, but our characters need to react and respond first. 

Clear reactions to clear (and compelling) problems create strong scenes that make it easy for readers to immerse themselves in the story. 

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick and scene and examine the stimulus/response. Search for the common red flag words as, when, before, and after and determine if the order of events unfolds like you want it to, or if you're mixing up the sentence's stimulus/response.

How do you handle stimulus/response with your characters?  

*Originally published. February 2011. Last updated June 2024.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I harp all the time on my critique partners pieces about simultaneous actions. Not so much now, because they're really all fantastic writers and know how to steer around them.

    A friend I have is also a writer, but the writing is always packed full of simultaneous actions, a good variety of the three bad forms you showed us.

    I find a trouble in my character dialogue is when I need to get them somewhere, and I just can't seem to pull them out of the room. I had this problem just yesterday. I want to move the plot, but my to get more out of my characters (depth, relation, plot), I kept them talking. Finally, they moved on. Whew!

    Thanks for posting this!

    In My Write Mind

  2. Need to apply this to some of the action scenes in my current manuscript! Thanks!

  3. Great post. I think I'm OK when it comes to simultaneous actions, but I will have to check when I get to edits.


  4. Definitely another lesson for me to learn and apply.

    I've been telling everyone I can about your blog, Janice. It's easily some of the most valuable practical advice I've found for writers.

  5. Thanks for another great post. You have a knack for explaining things so clearly. I'm learning so much from you.

  6. Excellent, and your examples help a lot to show what you mean. :) Now I have to check my WIP for those When phrases...

  7. Janice, I agree with jtwebster, you do have a brilliant knack for explaining things. Everytime I read one of these posts, something clicks in my little brain.

  8. Justin: I've had characters chatter away like that. What I do, is to just break the scene and move on, even if the ender isn't that great. I worry about smoothing it over in revisions. Usually, by the time I get back to it I've figured out a better way to shift scenes.

    Chelsey: Most welcome. Hope they help!

    Misha: Thanks!

    Paul: Aw, thanks so much!

    JTWebster: Thanks! Makes me happy to hear that :)

    Carol: Thanks! Those when guys are the sneaky ones.

    Welshcake: Thanks so much! Makes it all worthwhile to know I'm helping.

    KD: Thanks!

  9. Excellent! I learn so much from reading your blog!

  10. Thanks Carol! I learn a lot by writing it, too :) Amazing what you realize when you pay attention to what you do and why you do it.

  11. Writing is ever the challenge. I am told to kill my darlings and edit with my largest scissor. Yet to show takes so many more words than to tell, note your examples above. "Leslie jumped" why? A girl screamed, why? It affected Leslie, why?
    Personally all the drivel about Peter is where I would tune out but that is another topic. In a fight or flight fear reaction when monsters are in the room relationship concerns are not front and center, but that's me.
    Question then becomes, how to justify word count over shock and suspense?

  12. Interesting article. Much to think about!