The natural order of things (writing effectively)

First published in HeartsTalk Magazine, February 2010

As an author, it’s not enough to assume that your engagement with your story will translate to readers. Ask anyone who’s had a low competition score or a stinging rejection whether they lacked interest in their story. They didn’t.

If you want readers to buy your characters’ emotion you have to make them feel it.

Writing is a foreign language and translation is key to understanding. When you have zero control over who, when, where, why or how your reader will experience your story the only thing you can rely upon is our commonality as human beings. And if there’s one thing human beings all experience in common it’s cause and effect. And we’re hard-wired to think and interpret life that way.

A pygmy who leans on his spear in the depths of Botswana and a woman who runs a Subway outlet in Bondi are both going to flinch if something loud explodes next to them. And they’re both going to lurch away from the sound. And their heartrates are going to skyrocket. And they’re both going to suck in great lungfuls of air and…eventually…exclaim aloud.

And they’re both going to do it in the exact same order. Because they’re human. It’s how we’re built. Action:reaction. Cause:effect. Stimulus:Response.  And those responses tend to roll out in a prescribed order.

This is not new theory. Forty-five years ago, author Dwight V Swain reminded us that “in writing, one word follows another, instead of being overprinted in the same place.” (Techniques of the Selling Writer, 1965)  For as long as that remains true, he suggests, readers will experience the story in the order you write it on the page. And if your order is out of whack readers will disconnect from your story. They’ll disengage. And they won’t necessarily know why.

Swain adds that in life (and in fiction) “feeling precedes action; and action, speech. Because feeling provides the drive for both the others.”

What’s he saying? He’s saying that dropping the f-word is never going to be the first thing your Subway franchisee does when her oven blows up. Ever. Because we feel first, then we instinctively do (a range of things) and finally we think. And expecting a reader to accept that a character would speak first and flinch later is going to alienate that reader from your characters and kill their ability (and willingness) to suspend disbelief.

Because we’re human, too. And we know how we’d respond in the situation—even if it’s not conscious knowledge.

Let me demonstrate.

Example 1: Please, God, let him pass. Carol squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her damp pamls hard back against the wall as a man burst through the door, large and looming. He heart thumped wildly.

It’s okay. It has the necessary elements. But it’s clunky, yes? Our stimulus is buried in the middle of the passage and Carol’s thinking in coherent sentences long before her heart starts wildly beating. Worse, it forces the reader to remain distanced from the sentence; because they’re busy intellectualising, working out who ‘him’ is and why she’s shimmying along a wall, and generally being distracted from the all-important job of immersing in your story. Feeling Carol’s fear. Being Carol. Being engaged.

I can do better.

Example 2: A large, looming man burst through the door. Carol’s heart thumped wildly and she squeezed her eyes hard, pressing her damp palms back into the wall. Please, God, let him pass.

Getting there. Swain would call this FAS – feeling|action|speech. The normal human reaction to a stimulus is to feel something, then do something, then say something (or think, in this case).

But it’s still not convincing. Are you engaged yet? Nup, thought not.


Margie Lawson  is a psychoanalyst and writer who has made a specialty of examining the structure of effective novels to see what makes them work. The body-language of books, basically. She goes further than Swain, breaking down the ‘feeling’ component into visceral, subconscious and conscious acknowledging that our bodies have a heap of autonomic functions which we cannot consciously control but which we, as humans, instinctively recognise and interpret. Sweating palms, pounding heart, weak knees, head spins, weak bladder. They’re usually the first cabs off thecause and effect rank and generally the last to wear off, too.

Right behind these come the unconscious reactions such as flinching or holding your breath. Not something you think about doing but much higher functions than the truly autonomic stuff. Then come the full gamut of conscious reactions—swearing, crying, screaming, laughing, running…

And it all happens in 2.3 seconds.

Readers love this stuff because they instantly relate to it, regardless of who or where they are. If they’re human, they’ll intuitively get it. More importantly we hope that they will feel it, too, to achieve real engagement with our words. Who doesn’t realise that dilated pupils means someone is sexually attracted? Go ahead. Ask around. As readers we learn, culturally, to decode this stuff.

Therefore getting it right matters if we want to suck someone into our story.

And so…thanks to Margie I’m going to layer in a little more unconscious reaction to help sell the fear…(extra heart action, some weak-at-the-knees)

Example 3: A man burst through the door, large and looming. Carol’s heart tightened and lurched and she squeezed her eyes hard, pressing her damp palms back into the wall for support. Please, God, let him pass.


Nearly there…

This is where a little bit of ‘show don’t tell’ crosses over into ‘cause and effect’. There is nothing—nothing—that sucks the engagement from a scene as much as telling your reader what they should be interpreting. Not only does it switch their mind over to that intellectual place again but it causes the ‘author voice’ to intrude. When you have a character experiencing the kind of fear poor Carol is feeling (or love or obsession or hilarity depending on your scene) it’s not necessary to tell us (‘fear tightened her heart’) or have her convince us through dialogue.

With that in mind, take a closer look at the structure of my final mini-example. I’ve ditched the redundant internal dialogue and relied purely on Carol’s reactions to communicate her fear. Then—because I can’t help myself and because this isn’t a one-size fits all solution—I’ve incorporated some other craft techniques like sentence rhythm, voice and evocative language to do their job and really sell Carol’s fear. I’ve also opportunistically dropped in some setting information to help the scene do its job.

Example 4: A man burst through the door. Large. Looming. Carol’s heart shrivelled back into itself and then exploded into a violent pulsing that threatened to vibrate of of the priceless masterpieces clear off the wall. She clenched her eyes into tiny, hard fists and pressed frigid palms back into the gallery wall as if it might swallow her.

Okay, a bit over the top… I would probably go back on a final edit and polish this back a bit. Too much of this in the scene would be nauseating! But strip away the ‘sell’ and you still have your basic, human cause and effect structure as in Example 1. Stimulus: (A man bursts through the door)… unconscious reactions (heart goes mad, sweaty palms, distorted perception of him as large and looming)…conscious reaction (shrinks against wall, squeezes eyes shut). And then just a few subtle words to replace the inner dialogue that still communicates the idea that she hopes he won’t see her.

It’s all there. In order. It’s easier to read because it feels natural to feel it unfold in sequence. It’s easier to engage because there’s fewer barriers to immersion. It’s easier to write—I promise you it will become second nature with practice—because it feels authentic as you write it.

So, give it a go. Find a scene of your own—perhaps where the heroine first touches the hero—and rewrite it keeping the principles of stimulus|visceral|subconscious|conscious in mind.

BTW, Margie Lawson would also say that an evocative response description will outgun an adverb any day. Why walk quickly when you can walk like the hounds of hell are on the hunt and you have their favourite squeaky toy in your pocket 🙂

But I digress…

Resources: – Empowering Character’s Emotions workshop

Dwight V Swain – Techniques of the Selling Writer  (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965)

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