Jeanne: The Chicken or the Egg?

A few months ago I did a beta read for an author friend. She’s a kick-butt writer, with a real gift for creating likeable characters you connect with and want to root for, but she had one narrative tic that I found distracting. When she described events that create an emotional reaction in the point-of-view character, she often described their reaction first and described what caused it second.

Here is a totally made-up example:

His breath shortened and his heart pounded till he could feel it beating in his ears. Footsteps sounded on the stairs above his head.

I can see where you might want to do this occasionally to create suspense for the reader (what’s going on?!), but in general it feels to me like it lacks chronological validity.

On the other hand, research into human perception suggests that we do actually perceive things at a subliminal level and react to them milliseconds before we’re consciously aware of what we’re reacting to.

(This has actually been used as an argument against free will–how can humans have free will if a large portion of our reactions are made by our subconscious minds?)

I’m opening the floor to discussion. In describing a stimulus-response situation, which should come first? Are there exceptions? If so, what are they?

4 thoughts on “Jeanne: The Chicken or the Egg?

  1. Every time? That would drive me crazy! But then as an old technical writer, I’m very particular about ordering – it’s ‘From the X menu, select Y’, NEVER the other way around!

    But I agree that it could be used occasionally, but more in a ‘spidey sense’ way – with skin prickling, etc., to make clearer that senses other than sight or hearing are working.

  2. I also think chronology is important, but I can also see that if you always have the correct order, and if, say, you’re in a suspense novel or some other kind of book with a lot of heart-stopping events, it might get a little boring to use the same structure constantly. And especially if it’s been established that your character has finely developed responses to unexplained sounds, for example. But mostly, I think it’s less confusing for readers if one sticks to chronology.

  3. This was in the romantic suspense sub-genre and I agree that response then stimulus makes a great change of pace, especially if that character, as often happens in RS and some paranormal, is depicted as having highly attuned senses. I should go back and see if this technique was limited to the highly trained military character.

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