Monday, September 17, 2012

Do You Understand Motivating Stimulus and its Importance to Your Novel?

I was recently interviewed about common mistakes I see in manuscripts I critique. It got me thinking about a lot of the mistakes I used to make and how I learned to identify them.
One of the most common problems I had in my first few manuscripts was the lack of foundational structure:

Tying Together Motivation and Response to Create Realism

This is crucial regardless of whether you're in the first two, middle five, or last page of your manuscript: The way to keep a reader reading, and convinced your world is real, is to tie their actions, thoughts, feelings and words to motivating stimulus.

It's how our lives work for real (the phone rings, so I answer it; a friend cries, so I offer her a tissue; my husband says he wants a divorce, and I go into shock, etc). Using it makes any world believable.

What is a motivating stimulus? I'll leave it to my swami Swain to explain since I think he does it best:

"A motivating stimulus is anything outside your focual character to which he reacts. For a motivating stimulus to do its job well, it must have:

a. Significance to your character.
b. Pertinence to your story.
c. Motivity to your reader."

And I'll add one point that Swain makes later in the book in much greater detail:

Plausibility is key. If a stimulus appears "trumped up" by the author -- a vehicle to move the character that doesn't occur organically -- it doesn't matter how well the character reacts. You'll lose your reader.

So, what does this look like? It looks like something that isn't happenstance, and requires immediate reaction:

- Rather than a character randomly deciding to pick up the newspaper that morning (which is going to tell them their estranged father has been indicted), have the character receive a phone call for comment on the story.

- If your teenage protagonist wants to be Prom Queen. Instead of just steeling themselves to ask that gorgeous guy out, have them witness the most beautiful (and annoying) girl in class sauntering up the to the object of their attention and flirt with him.

In short - give the character a launching point.

Then take it down to the detail: When one character speaks to another, make sure the response is both logical and timely. Don't let your characters give three paragraphs of internal narration before responding to a line of dialogue from someone else -- not unless you've established a great deal of emotion attached to that dialogue and hte reader already knows the answer, but it's more important to hear how the protagonist feels.

In general, give the motivating stimulus, then the response. Keep the momentum flowing by making sure that when event occurs it makes your character feel something. Give the reader the character's response right away - in thought, action and / or speech.

Your character should always be doing something to move your story forward. It's up to you to give them a plausible reason to do it.

That's what makes a story realistic and helps the reader suspend disbelief long enough to fall for your fallen angels, superhero teens, cool-guy-falling-for-nerd-girl, etc, etc, etc.

Your Turn: Any questions about motivating stimulus? Or comments on how it's used?


  1. Great advice! Also I can't wait to see what your announcement is all about :)

  2. i dont understand it...psspsssssssss

  3. Very helpful advice. I've been trying to work in dialogue in a YA novel, and I see that motivating stimulus is important too. I can see where working this in keeps the story moving, and helps the reader get to know the characters.

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