Creating: Unlocking the Mighty MRU - Randy Ingermanson

One of the most popular classes I teach at writing conferences is a mentoring workshop. Typically, I have
5 to 10 students that I work with intensively for several hours over the course of the conference.

I've taught this enough times that I schedule time to teach little 5-minute lectures on various topics that I know in advance most of my students are going to have trouble with.

Right at the top of the list of topics is the "Motivation-Reaction Unit," often abbreviated to "MRU."
(This term seems to be due to the legendary writing teacher Dwight Swain.)

Between 80 and 90 percent of my mentoring students need help on their MRUs. In reading published novels, I'd guess that about 75 percent of all authors also need some polishing on their MRUs.

As always, let me apologize for the terminology.
"Motivations" and "Reactions" aren't quite what you think they ought to be, and that's confusing.

But there should be nothing confusing about MRUs. Let me define a few terms.

In each scene, you choose one "Point of View Character"
whose brain you can look inside. You know this character's thoughts and emotions. You don't directly know the thoughts and emotions of any other characters in this scene, although you can make one of them the POV character in some other scene.

The "Motivation" is composed of anything that happens in your scene external to your POV character. The Motivation typically includes descriptions of the scene or actions and dialogue of the other characters.

The "Reaction" is composed of anything that your POV character does. The Reaction typically includes the actions and dialogue of your POV character, along with any thoughts or emotions you want to reveal to your reader.

Clearly, Dwight Swain had a reactive model in mind when thinking about POV characters. In Swain's way of thinking, things happen that "motivate" his POV character. Then the POV character "reacts" by doing or saying or thinking or feeling.

The reason this is poor terminology is that your POV character will often be proactive. She'll be doing or saying things that "motivate" the other characters in the scene to "react" to her.

So Swain's terminology is misleading, but it really doesn't matter. What I've found in teaching writers is that they make a quantum leap in their writing as soon as they learn to analyze their writing in terms of MRUs. Scenes that are fuzzy suddenly leap into focus when you break them down into MRUs. Big blocks of complicated and confusing action becomes clear when you put paragraph breaks between Motivations and Reactions.

Some examples would be helpful here. Let's look at a typical example of "fuzzy writing" that clarifies immediately when you try to break it down into Motivations and Reactions:

Harry and Tom pulled out their wands and began casting curses at each other.

Randy sez: What's wrong with this sentence? Isn't it exciting? It's a life-and-death situation. What's wrong with that?

What's wrong is that we're not experiencing it from the inside, we're seeing it from the outside. Furthermore, we're not seeing it in real-time, we're seeing it as a summary of real-time.

First things first. The reason we're not experiencing this from the inside is that we haven't yet chosen a POV character. We have two choices: either Harry or Tom. If there were other characters in the scene, one of them would work as well.

A good rule of thumb is to choose the POV character to be the one with the most to lose in the scene. Another good rule of thumb is to choose the more likable character.

In this case, since both Harry and Tom could be killed, they both have a lot to lose. But we'll say by fiat that Harry is more likable, so we'll make him the POV character.

Now that we've chosen a POV character, we find immediately that the above sentence is all tangled up.
It's showing the actions of BOTH Harry and Tom. Let's break it up into three paragraphs, each focusing on only ONE of the two characters:

Harry pulled out his wand and madly brushed the hair out of his eyes.

Tom peered at Harry through snakelike eyes and pointed his wand at Harry's heart. "Avada --"

"Expelliarmus!" Harry shouted.

Randy sez: Notice that the new version is a lot longer than the original. The original was "narrative summary"
and cost us only 14 words in a single paragraph. The new version cost us 34 words in three paragraphs.

If the stakes were low, then there wouldn't be much point in dragging things out in MRUs. It would make more sense to summarize things using narrative summary.

But since the stakes are high, it increases the tension to show the action in more detail, switching focus between Harry and Tom.

Also notice that we've used only a few of our tools. In the first paragraph, we see two actions of Harry. No dialogue, no interior monologue or interior emotion. If we wanted to stretch the tension further, we could add some of these elements.

In the second paragraph, we have two actions by Tom plus a little description plus the beginning of some dialogue. Again, if we chose, we could fill in far more here. More action. More dialogue. More description. Or not. It depends what you're trying to achieve as an author.

In the third paragraph, we have only dialogue. This is pretty sensible here, since the dialogue is interrupting Tom. There's a time and a place for stretching out the tension. There's also a time and place for compressing.

Now here's a second example that shows a different kind of problem, this time in timing:

Sherlock dived to his right just as Moriarty swung the axe back and then viciously swept it forward, immediately after Inspector Lestrade blew his police whistle far away up the street and both men paused to look before resuming their fight.

Randy sez: Again, there's no POV character, but it's an easy choice to make it Sherlock. The real problem with this paragraph is that the timing is all screwed up.
The order of the actions as they appear in the sentence doesn't have much resemblance to the actual sequence of events.

The events happen as follows:
* Lestrade blows his whistle.
* Sherlock and Moriarty pause to look.
* Sherlock and Moriarty resume their fight.
* Moriarty swings the axe back.
* Moriarty begins to sweep it forward.
* Sherlock dives to his right.

In your writing, watch out for words like "after" that indicate that you're showing the effect first and then the cause. In this case, the cause is Lestrade blowing his whistle. The effect is that Sherlock and Moriarty pause to look. It's far less confusing to show things in the order they actually happen.

Also watch out for words like "just as" that indicate that two events are simultaneous. Often, they aren't.
Even if they are, you can't SHOW them simultaneous. You have to write one event first, then the other. That's the nature of the written word.

In this case, the action of swinging the axe back and then forward takes a lot more time than the action of diving out of the way. The dive can't possibly happen "just as" the axe swing does. Obviously, you don't dive out of the way until you see the axe coming, so it's clear what the correct order should be.

Now let's rewrite the above in several short, punchy paragraphs that get the order right. Also, we'll insert a little interior monologue for Sherlock, to put the reader more inside his head.

Far away up the street, Inspector Lestrade blew his police whistle.

Sherlock sneaked a look. Help was on the way. All he had to do was fend off Moriarty for a few moments longer.

Moriarty swung his axe back over his shoulder and then swept it forward viciously like a scythe.

Sherlock dove to his right, out of range of the gleaming blade.

Randy sez: We've expanded the sequence slightly, going from 41 words to 63 words. But the main thing we've done is to get the timing right.

There's a lot more to say about MRUs, and the ideal situation would be to analyze a full scene from a real published novel, paragraph by paragraph. That's tricky to do for a couple of reasons, but I've figured out how to do it.

My coauthor John Olson and I will soon be republishing our award-winning out-of-print novel OXYGEN as an e-book. We'll include a long appendix that analyzes the MRUs of the entire first scene in excruciating detail.

This appendix will be just for novelists who care about such things. If we had a publisher, it would tell us we're stupid to do this, because only one reader in a thousand is a novelist. But we don't have a publisher to tell us we're stupid, so we're just going to do it.

Since OXYGEN will be an e-book, the price will be just $2.99.

You'll hear about it as soon as it's available. Watch for a "Special Note" e-mail from me sometime in the next few weeks.

Permission for reprint granted by author...
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 26,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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