In a narrative, what comes first when you write a reaction to an incident?

Someone steps on your toe. What comes next?

a. You say “Ow!”

b. You feel pain.

c. You withdraw your foot.

d. A, b and c happen at exactly the same time.

In real life, d might seem like the right sequence since our bodies’ nervous systems react so quickly that it might be hard for us to distinguish thousandths of a second meaningfully.

A dog pulls table cloth, knocking down a vase of flowers a woman is working on.

Stimulus

But when we write about this experience, order does matter. Why? Writing is a means of communication based on putting one word after another. Writing is based on sequencing ideas. We can’t write about two things happening at the same time without first naming one idea, and then using a word like “simultaneously,” and

Woman is dismayed

Emotional reaction

then naming the other idea. One idea has to be expressed first and another has to wait its turn.

Knowing this, good writers have developed an order in which to express reactions, and it is this:

  • Something happens (the stimulus).
  • Someone has an emotional reaction.
  • That same someone has a physical reaction based on his emotional reaction.
  • That same someone speaks or not based on a rational reaction.

    Woman lowers her head, discouraged

    Physical reaction

If, for example, a raccoon walks across the deck while the family dog is watching from inside the house, the order of action and reaction is

1. A raccoon walks across the deck (the stimulus).

2. The dog sees this and has an emotional reaction of protection. “Hey, this is my territory. Mine, not yours!”

3. Aroused, the dog jumps up and

4. The dog barks.

The woman yells at the dog.

Spoken reaction

Knowing the order of responding to a stimulus is an advanced writing skill, but one that some fourth and most fifth graders can learn. One way to teach this skill is to show four index cards with pictures on them. One might show a raccoon on a deck. Another might show an aroused dog, his eyes bulging (or the way cartoonists sometimes do, with a lightbulb over his head). The third might show that same dog lunging toward the window, and the fourth might show the dog barking at the raccoon.

Another way is to show a series of poorly written reactions to stimuli and to ask the student to rewrite the sequence in a better order.

One warning: Not all four parts of this stimulus/reaction sequence need to be used. A stimulus is necessary, and an emotional reaction is necessary (although that emotional reaction could be trivial if the stimulus is not important). Sometimes a physical reaction will occur, and sometimes not; sometimes a spoken reaction will occur, and sometimes not. The more serious the stimulus is, the more likely all four parts of the reaction will be present.

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