Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Two Paragraphs: Response, Then Stimulus

As long as we're looking at Fitzgerald, here's a strong pair of paragraphs that reverses the natural order of things.

He lit a cigarette, tossed the match out the open top of the window, then paused in his tracks with the cigarette two inches from his mouth--which fell faintly ajar. His eyes were focussed upon a spot of brilliant color on the roof of a house farther down the alley.

It was a girl in a red neglige, silk surely, drying her hair by the still hot sun of late afternoon. His whistle died upon the stiff air of the room; he walked cautiously another step nearer the window with a sudden impression that she was beautiful. Sitting on the stone parapet beside her was a cushion the same color as her garment and she was leaning both arms upon it as she looked down into the sunny areaway,where Anthony could hear children playing.

~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

Normally, we would get the stimulus and then the response, right? So what's the stimulus in this sequence? The sight of a beautiful girl in a negligee. What's the response? His mouth falls open. He pauses in his tracks. The cigarette hangs in midair. They're backwards: response, then stimulus.

We get a second response, too, when his whistle dies and he walks closer to the window. But look at what follows that: with a sudden impression that she was beautiful. This feels reversed to me, too. I think the impression of beauty is what makes him want to whistle in the first place.

So why does Fitzgerald set it up this way? Here's my guess. He wrote about people with outsized egos, people who were self-absorbed. What will be more important to a character like this, an external stimulus or his own response? Putting the response first throws more attention on it. Forgot about the hot little number in the red silk slip. What's important here is the character's response, what he says and does and feels. The beautiful girl matters only because she's the trigger for another opportunity for self-assessment.

There are times when you might want to weight the response a bit more than the stimulus, and this would be a handy trick to make that happen. But if you try this, pay particular attention to clarity. Make sure that the new information (that is, the stimulus which follows the response) doesn't supply entirely new information that changes our way of understanding the reaction. The reaction must be comprehensible even without the stimulus. In Fitzgerald's sentence, we have a character facing a window who becomes suddenly arrested. It's a safe bet that he sees something outside that window. If it turned out that the stimulus was a knock on the door, this passage wouldn't be as clear.


1 comment:

Rachelle Ayala said...

Hi Theresa, this was interesting. Yes, I've been looking to make sure stimulus always comes first. But, as always, there shouldn't be a rule. Now I can see that the emphasis is on the self-absorbed response, and the description of the girl is an explanation.

Love your blog. I started reading from the beginning and plan to read all the way through.