Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Fiction

Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing

What’s the secret to good prose? What makes it work—not just on the aesthetic level of vivid and poetic word choices, but on the deeper and ultimately more important level of functionality? In short, is there a method authors can learn to create clear and powerful prose—or is it all luck and gut instinct?

All prose—whether it’s the elaborate poetry of William Faulkner or the straightforward sentences of Cormac McCarthy—will always be instinctive on some level. Our word choices and sometimes the direction the sentences themselves end up taking can surprise even us sometimes. But if the structure that underlies our sentences and paragraphs is going to effectively convey our thoughts to our readers it will always adhere to the logical pattern of cause and effect.

What’s a motivation-reaction unit?

Dwight V. Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, famously cracked the code of efficient prose into what he called “motivation-reaction units,” or MRUs. Just what are MRUs and how do they work to create good writing?

For all that it sounds like part of an airplane engine,motivation-reaction units are an insanely simple concept. It boils down to the following model. In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes(motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.

What’s a motivation?

The motivating factor is an outside stimulus that affects your character. It’s the catalyst that causes the character to react. This catalyst could be:

1. A car rear-ending your protagonist’s.

2. A cat curling up in his lap.

3. A girl accepting his proposal of marriage.

4. A lightning bolt hitting his house.

5. A line of dialogue.

6. A crack in the sidewalk that catches his toe.

The possibilities, of course, are as varied as your story’s needs. The only limitation is that the motivating factor must be something that happens to your protagonist.

What’s a reaction?

The reaction happens in response to the motivating factor. This is the effect of the cause. It is something your character does in response to something else. His reaction could be:

1. Slamming his car’s brakes.

2. Petting the cat.

3. Hugging the girl.

4. Running out of his house.

5. Saying another line of dialogue in return.

6. Tripping and falling to the sidewalk.

Easy-peasy, right? The only trick is . . .

Getting the order right

The catch to MRUs is that they must be presented in the correct order.

When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’reintroducing an element of unreality, however minuscule. Even if their

confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion. In the example below, which order makes more sense?

I whooped and did a dance right there in the front lawn after Kelsey agreed to marry me.

—or—

Kelsey agreed to marry me, and I jumped up and down and whooped right there in the front lawn.

From this point on, it gets just a smidge more complicated, since we can further breakdown the reaction half of the unit into three distinct responses, each of which also needs to be presented in its logical order:

1. Feeling and/or thought.

2. Action (can include involuntary physical response such as sweating or breathing hard).

3. Speech.

Why this order? Because this is the order in which humans process and respond to stimuli. First comes the involuntary subconscious response, then the involuntary physical reaction, then conscious physical movements,then finally speech. Usually, these responses happen so quickly they’re practically inextricable from one another, but if you pay attention to your own reactions, you’ll be able to break down the progression from involuntary to voluntary. On paper, a character’s reaction might look something like this:

“Of course I’ll marry you,” Kelsey said.

Shock smacked me in the solar plexus. Seriously? She was taking me seriously? My palms started to sweat,and I rubbed them down my jeans. “Uh—” I tried to find words to explain I had just been kidding around. “Well, actually . . .”

By organizing the narrator’s response like this, you gain several benefits:

1. Readers resonate with the natural progression of the reaction.

2. Readers can follow the development of the narrator’s thoughts,instead of learning about them after the fact, as would be the case if he spoke first, then shared his thoughts.

3. Readers know who’s doing the talking right away, thanks to the action beat (which isn’t such a big deal here, but would be in a longer scene with more characters).

4. Readers can lean into the strength of the prose’s linear pattern, instead of being jerked along by a less logical progression.

Are there exceptions to the MRU?

Absolutely. The whole point of the MRU is to create logical and clear prose. If forcing your paragraphs into the MRU ever runs counter to either of these goals, don’t be afraid to manipulate it to fit your needs.

Same goes for the occasional bit of poetic license. Sometimes you’re just plain going to want to break the rules in order to achieve a specific effect.Keep in mind you won’t always need or want to include all three parts of the reaction. Sometimes dialogue will be sufficient to explain your character’s emotional and mental reaction. And sometimes he will confine his reaction to emotions and/or thoughts without offering any kind of speech or movement.At first, you may not find MRUs intuitive. Dialogue,in particular, often wants to sneak ahead of other aspects of the reaction,since we usually hear and transcribe the back and forth of our characters’conversation before visualizing their accompanying physical actions.

To get you started, try editing an old story with a special eye on organizing your MRUs. Although you’ll certainly find places where you’ll want to make exceptions, I promise you’ll discover that your prose will emerge as a stronger and more cohesive whole.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever experimented with MRUs?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is very interesting. I thought about my current wip while I was reading and realized that I have been using MRUs without being entirely aware of it. Imagine how much more effective I’ll be being conscious of it :)

  2. This is yet another of those things that most writers understand instinctively – which is why it’s important. The very fact that it’s instinctive is what lends it much of its power, because readers respond to it on the same subconscious level.

  3. Glad to see someone else sharing Swain’s wisdom. I’ve been writing a whole blog series covering each chapter from his Techniques of the Selling Writer. I really love how deeply he explores the ideas behind good fiction.

    I’ve gone through that book a few times and come away with a better understanding of it with each reading. I can’t recommend it enough to those willing to learn more about the craft.

  4. Swain had an absolutely brilliant grasp on the mechanics of storytelling. His work his foundational and should be a must read for every fiction writer.

  5. This is a useful tool. I’ve read Dwight V. Swain’s books as well as Jack Bickham’s, author of The Apple Dumpling Gang, who was a student of Swain and expanded on his teachings in the late 1980s and 1990s. These techniques help on the molecular level of a story. However, I think the writer must be aware that the Stimulus-Response chain opens the door to your hero seeming to be reactive rather than someone who takes control. I think the best approach is to introduce stimuli that can be traced back to some action or decision the hero made. Then, his reactions must be bigger than the present stimulus or at least a braver move than the average joe might have taken.

  6. When we come right down to it, there’s a very fine line between action and reaction. If we get really technical, then every action is a reaction on some level and every reaction is an action on another. But, I agree, the emphasis on reaction should never rob the character of his ability to dramatically act out (whether, technically speaking, it’s in reaction or not).

  7. Thanks. I’ll watch for this as I run through another edit.

  8. Hmm. I need to keep this in mind as I edit. Maybe I’ll go back and run this along side my scenes to see if I’ve been doing this without realizing. Or if I need to fix the scenes because the speaking part sneaks in before the feelings. Thanks for some great tips.

  9. Yes. This article helped me understand why I’ve always found it annoying to read dialogue that is followed by the action that caused it. Thank you.

  10. I’m one of those writers using MRUs instinctively. I’m also one who has to know a rule in order to bend it. Now that I’m conscious of this rule, I finally know how to bend and break it correctly. Thanks!

  11. I have revised with MRUs in mind. It’s not always easy, but it does improve the flow of a scene. I’m still working out who does what when in my WIP, so I’ll use the MRUs for the next pass. By then, I should have read Swain’s book, since I just ordered it this week!

  12. @Lorna: Fortunately, MRUs are super easy to set up once you have an understanding of them.

    @Jennifer: A few conscious edits of MRUs is all it takes to teach us some fascinating things about the way we construct prose – and how we can do it better.

    @Janie: It’s often instinctive to write it that way, but it makes little sense, unless, of course, the action really *does* follow the dialogue.

    @Dennis: So much of writing well is instinctive that, really, the ultimate reason for learning the rules is so that we can understand how best to break them.

    @Monica: Swain’s book is one of the few at the top of my list of writing craft books that I feel every writer should read (John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and Larry Brook’s Story Engineering are the others).

  13. First let me say, I am sad I didn’t win the Yoda hat. But, then again, I would look silly wearing it while I write.
    Second, this is a great post, and something that most writers do instinctively, but the knowing of why we do it is very interesting.

    Thanks for sharing! Love the blog!

  14. Ah well, who knows, maybe there will be another Yoda hat drawing down the line. ;)

  15. How do we have to change these MRUs while the narrator reminisces his experiences after all is over, particularly when one has to skip many parts in between to make that story?

  16. And yeah, it was a great post!

  17. Glad you enjoyed the post! I’m assuming that what you’re talking about is either a flashback or the reflection period part of a scene (the “sequel” half of the scene). In either case, the organization of the MRU doesn’t shift. You may not always need to include all the elements: for example, if the character is reminiscing, the story may be confined entirely to his thoughts with no actions or dialogue.

  18. Loved the post! Thanks for the clear explanation! Showing things this way can certainly add to the story :) Although I think reversing the order might work great for an opening sentence.

  19. Opening sentences are often in medias res (in the middle of things), in order to hook readers with curiosity. So, you’re right. We throw readers into the middle of the action, then step back to explain how characters got there.

  20. I usually think that´s a great way to hook :)

  21. Anonymous says:

    I am curious about MRU’s and their paragraphs. Ingermanson instructs the writer to always begin a new paragraph when starting a new motivation or reaction. If motivations are one sentence, and reactions sometimes just one or two as well, will this not cause several indents on the page. How does the paragraph block workout with this technique? Also, where does description fit in to MRU’s. Thanks for the article, and I too have appreciated Swain’s MRU approach; helps me in the flow other than the aforementioned question.

  22. Ingermanson is echoing Swain in regard to the new paragraph per new unit. Personally, I feel this can be overdone. As you say, you’ll have instances where you’ll have paragraph after paragraph of just one line. Sometimes this is useful if you’re wanting to create a rapid-fire effect during a high-tension or -action scene. However, I recommend that authors rely on intuition. If it looks better and makes more sense to group several units together in one paragraph, don’t hesitate to do so.

  23. Thank you. I’ve much to learn and this has helped.

  24. Glad it was useful!

  25. I would think involuntary action should precede thought.
    I think the proper sequence should be:
    1. Feeling
    2. Involuntary Action (Reflex)
    3. Thought
    4. Voluntary Action
    5. Speech

  26. Thought happens in a split second (or less); action, even when involuntary, takes longer, simply because it takes place in the physical realm. But that’s really splitting hairs. If you feel that a particular paragraph runs better with the action before the thought, there’s no reason not to write it that way.

  27. Thoughts need to be formed. Reflexes are. . . reflexive. If I should put my hand on a hot burner, I’ll pull it back first and ruminate on my foolishness later.

  28. I would argue that at least some thoughts (depends on how *formed* we’re talking about) are just as reflexive. But, as I said, we’re really splitting hairs here. The bottom line is that we need to try to organize our characters reactions in the order they happen. If you feel your character is acting reflexively before thinking (or if you just want to leave the thought out altogether to help speed the sentence), then that’s absolutely what you should do.

  29. In the sequel to a scene, sometimes I find my character mainly just deliberating, without any motivations or reactions. I understand this can get quite dull if my sequels are more than a page. :P Would the motivations be subtler in a sequel? Or is the whole thing a reaction? Or is there a different system altogether?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Motivations and reactions only apply when the character is physically *doing* something. If he’s just sitting and thinking, then you’re not likely to have anything but straight narrative. But if he’s performing any kind of action while deliberating (which is often best), then the MRU will apply just the same in a sequel as in a scene.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The dialogue typo in the second sentence does not endear me to the story, as it feels sloppy, as does the manner of description in which we see details only after being told about something. For example, Madeline glances at “the man” and we only learn later that he’s disheveled. That does not feel true to her experience.  Same with glancing in the direction of a waitress who was fast approaching. This focuses on reaction first and stimulus second, which is an unnatural sequence that distances me from character. There’s a nice article on this topic here. […]

  2. […] quite a bit of research about beat structure.  What I’ve learned is basically summarized in this post on motivation-reaction units, which is brilliant.  I also like everything that is said about structure in this […]

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