Archive | May, 2008

Questions on MRUs

Yesterday I posted an analysis of several paragraphs in the book DEAD MAN’S RULE, by lawyer Rick Acker. A number of my loyal blog readers posted comments or questions, and I think it’s time to answer some of those:

Robert wrote:

My main character is mostly blind. He can see a little, but not much. The best input he gets is auditory. I have a lot of people describe what’s happening to him, but he still goes a lot by what he hears.

The problem is that this means his “Motivations” will also be mostly auditory. But I can’t seem to get away from saying “[he] heard” or “the sound of”.

For instance, here’s one motivation written different ways (he and other people are in a wagon, which is being chased):

1) He heard running feet beside the wagon.
2) Running feet were heard beside the wagon.
3) The sounds of running was heard beside the wagon.
4) People were now running beside the wagon.

Randy sez: I think the best solution is to write as if the character were not blind.

I would avoid #1 because it injects the POV character into the Motivation, and I can’t see any reason to do so.

#2 contains a passive verb construction “were heard” which should be avoided or plagues will be called down on the head of the author, or even worse, your book will not be read, or even worse, you may become the object of self-referential humor which will be read on my blog.

Ditto for #3.

#4 works fine. This is most likely the way the POV character actually experiences it. He hears them and deduces that people are running based on the sounds that impinge on his ears, much as a sighted character will see them and deduce that they are actually there, based on the light that impinges on his eyes.

Parker suggested as a solution:

Seems the auditory input must trigger an emotional or visceral experience for your character. You might play on that. Another variation for your ideas file:

“Fear pulsed hard in his veins (or head, or ears) at the pounding of feet beside the wagon.

Randy sez: It’s an excellent idea to put in emotive Reactions to the Motivation, but they must come AFTER the Motivation, not before. So you would need to show the sound of the pounding feet and THEN show us that fear pulsing through those veins. Remember that the reader has a very linear experience, because she must read the words in order. If you write the effect before the cause, then it feels “unrealistic” to the reader, who will likely not realize what’s wrong. It is not enough to use a connective such as “as” or “while” or similar to make the cause and the effect seem simultaneous. In writing, it’s a rare place where it works to say that things happen simultaneously, because they can’t be read simultaneously. So always put the explosion first and then the shock wave.

Mary asked:

In your example above when I read Alexie’s hand shot into his pocket and got the gun, I thought it meant his own pocket, not the other guy’s. Would adding a couple words to make it clear slow down the action too much?

Randy sez: This is a good point. Here is the original:

“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket and quickly searched Alexei’s coat pockets. As he knelt to frisk through Alexei’s pants pockets, Alexei’s hand suddenly grabbed his arm and held it in an iron grip. Alexei’s other hand shot into his jacket and pulled out the Makarov.

If I were writing this, I’d probably simplify this and put a paragraph break at the point where the Motivation transitions to a Reaction. This would eliminate those pesky pronoun problems:

“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket, knelt down on the frozen sidewalk, searched Alexei’s coat pockets, and then reached inside his right pants pocket.

Alexei’s right hand grabbed the assassin’s arm in an iron grip. His left shot into the man’s jacket and yanked out the Makarov.

This tightens things up a bit, and eliminates the confusion, I think.

Parker asked:

I see the MRU’s in fast paced fiction, but what about in what you termed recently “pesky literary” fiction?

It seems to me that there you might have several pages of building the motivation, and perhaps that again in showing the reaction. And this raises another question in my addled brain.

Is it reasonable to have multiple minor MRU’s within a larger one?

Randy sez: Remember that MRUs are the magic secret to “showing” rather than “telling.” A lot of literary fiction consists in “telling.” This is not a requirement of literary fiction, but literary novelists are better than normal writers and can “tell” some things a lot more grippingly than most of us can “show”. If you are a literary novelist, then “show” or “tell” as the spirit moves you. If you choose to “tell,” then of course you can’t use MRUs. If you choose to “show,” then you can.

As for having MRUs inside MRUs, I don’t see any reason to do this. An MRU is the smallest unit of conflict in a story. If you can break it down smaller, then it wasn’t an MRU to begin with.

We’ll continue next time with another analysis of the MRUs in a story.

MRUs in Dead Man’s Rule

Yesterday I launched a new topic–Motivation-Reaction Units, which I learned from Dwight Swain. For those of you new to “MRUs”, you can get a summary of them in my article Writing the Perfect Scene.

A number of my loyal blog readers commented today on MRUs, and I’d love to respond to those, but my instinct tells me to just get on with an example. We can talk theory later. So I stood up just now, turned around, and grabbed a book off my shelf. This one is a legal thriller by my friend Rick Acker, who’s a lawyer in the Bay Area. The title is DEAD MAN’S RULE, and I really enjoyed this book a couple of months ago.

The POV character in the opening scene is Alexei, a Russian criminal in Chicago who’s waiting for his CIA contacts to show up on a deserted bridge late at night. When the car arrives, the rear window is down and Alexei realizes he’s in deep trouble. Let’s pick up from there:

Alexei jumped back from the rail between the sidewalk and the street just as the car reached him.

Randy sez: This is a reaction to seeing the window down. Alexei is a crook who’s spent all his life in the Russian underworld, so this is part reflex, part rational response.

Three shots–probably intended for his head–caught him in the chest and side. There was no sound of gunfire to attract attention, just three shrouded flashes and the soft zip zip zip of bullets leaving a silencer.

Randy sez: This is a motivation. How do we know? Because this is objective and external to Alexei. That’s what “motivation” is in MRU terminology. This should not be confused with what people usually mean by the word “motivation”. In MRU-speak, “motivation” means precisely that part of a scene which is objective and external to the POV character.

Alexei stumbled and fell.

Randy sez: This is a reaction. Alexei doesn’t do this intentionally, of course. It would be foolish to fall in his situation. But he doesn’t have much choice. He’s just been shot three times in the chest. He happens to be wearing a Kevlar vest, which is why he’s not dead. But even so, three bullets carry a lot of momentum, and he’s hurting. Notice that Rick doesn’t TELL us Alexei’s hurting. At this point, the action is fast and furious and telling us about Alexei’s pain would slow things down. There’ll be time for that in a minute.

“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket and quickly searched Alexei’s coat pockets.

Randy sez: This is a new motivation. It’s external to our POV character, Alexei. Notice that Rick doesn’t TELL us “Alexei saw…” He just SHOWS us what Alexei saw. This is important. You don’t want to waste words in a novel, and telling the reader that the POV character is seeing something or hearing something 500 times in a novel is a waste of 1000 words. The reader KNOWS the POV character is doing the seeing and hearing. Don’t treat your reader like a dummy.

As he knelt to frisk through Alexei’s pants pockets, Alexei’s hand suddenly grabbed his arm and held it in an iron grip. Alexei’s other hand shot into his jacket and pulled out the Makarov.

Randy sez: The first sentence here is mixed–partly motivation, partly Alexei’s reaction. The second sentence is all reaction. The pace here is quite fast. I would recommend in a situation like this putting a paragraph break between the motivation and the reaction. It makes a cleaner distinction between Alexei and his assailant and adds a little white space to the page, which makes the pace feel that much faster.

Zip! Zip! Two rapid pulls on the trigger.

Randy sez: Nice! This is the rest of the reaction, and it wastes not a single letter.

The would-be assassin, his eyes now vacant, fell heavily to the ground beside Alexei.

Randy sez: Very good! The action is zipping right along. Alexei isn’t out of the woods yet, of course, but he’s just pulled a nice turn-around on his assassins. He still needs to deal with the driver of the car, but he’s now got a gun. He doesn’t know that it’s jammed yet, but he’ll find that out shortly.

You have many options in your writing. When the pace is slow, you can get away with a lot of telling. But in a gunbattle like this, or any kind of action scene, you NEED to write in MRUs. Nothing else will show the action with any kind of realism.

More tomorrow…

Let’s Talk About MRUs

I’ve been thinking about what to blog on next over the weekend and I think it’s time to revisit MRUs. A few of you specifically requested a discussion on this in the latest round of comments. Plus, I’ll be teaching a one-hour workshop on this at the ACFW conference in September, and now is a good time to put together some brand new material on this.

If you don’t know what MRUs are (maybe a weird sort of military meal?) then hie thee to my page on Writing the Perfect Scene and learn the basics. By the way, the page on Writing the Perfect Scene is rapidly growing in popularity (about 900 page views per week) and is now second only to the Snowflake page on this site.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick an example from literature and analyze it in terms of MRUs. Tonight, however, I’ll answer a question Lynda wrote:

The use of MRUs seems logical to me. However, I have been told they are formulaic and not to use them. What’s a newbie to think?

Randy sez: This is a good question, and I hear it quite often. It betrays a confusion between a “formula” and a “pattern.” Let me define those now:

A “formula” defines the way something MUST be done, but gives you little or no freedom to deviate from a certain standard. There is not any particular reason for a formula except that “it’s always been done this way.”

A “pattern” defines the way something CAN be done, but gives you enormous freedom to work within that pattern. There is a good rational reason for a pattern and those who understand that reason know when to ignore the pattern.

Some examples of “formulae” are as follows:
1) Fairy tales often begin with “Once upon a time…” and end “…and they lived happily ever after.” If you use these, you can’t change them by a single letter.

2) Certain “formula romance” novels are defined by exactly when the hero and heroine must meet (often by a certain page of the novel), what sort of difficulties they must have, how the story must end, and even the word-count of the novel. If you deviate from this formula, you may violate your contract.

Some examples of “patterns” are as follows:

1) The Three Act Structure known to all screenwriters. While a movie has three acts, the screenwriter has enormous freedom in what goes into those acts.

2) A limerick has a well-defined structure, with five lines in an A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme, a certain required rhythm, and the requirement that the limerick should be funny. But within those strong constraints, there is almost infinite variety.

3) A car has four wheels located approximately at its four corners. In this case, there are clear reasons for having four wheels–stability and maneuverability. A vehicle with five wheels just doesn’t work. One with three can work, but only if you take special precautions on the stability.

In the world of software engineering (which is where I steal many of my ideas), the idea of “Design Patterns” has been popular for about fifteen years. “Design Patterns” are commonly recurring patterns that an engineer can use to create new structures of information or behavior. Yet there is tremendous freedom within each pattern, and there is a lot of freedom in mixing Design Patterns together.

My opinion is that the MRU (Motivation-Reaction Unit) is a Design Pattern that has fundamental importance to the novelist. It gives you a clear structure that can be understood rationally. It also gives you enormous freedom to innovate within the pattern. I’m sure there are nay-sayers who will tell you that MRUs are a mere “formula” but I say nay to the nay-sayers.

My advice is to master the art of MRUs and then (when you understand why they work) use them or don’t use them as you see fit. It’s your novel. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to write it. But you are cheating yourself if you don’t have every tool in your toolkit.

Wrapping up First Paragraph Critiques

We’ve been critiquing first paragraphs for a few weeks now and I think it’s time to move on. So this will be the last one. I haven’t decided exactly what we’ll talk about next, but I’ll think about it over the weekend.

Here is Parker’s first paragraph of his novel:

The San Isidro church loomed a dark hulk against the gray sky. The moon and Venus hung just over the bell tower. Paul came at dawn. He watched the old men and women shuffle to early Mass, coats and scarves pulled tight against the sharp morning air. Six times the bell shattered the clear air. Six times the echo resounded off the mountains. And six times quivers pulsed up his spine.

Randy sez: A very fine first paragraph! You have captured a very strong sense of place, and that’s always a plus. Let’s look at this sentence by sentence:

The San Isidro church loomed a dark hulk against the gray sky.

Randy sez: This creates an immediate mood that I like. There are several emotive words here that all tell the same story: “loomed” and “dark” and “hulk” and “gray”. The one issue I have is the phrase “loomed a dark hulk”. It seems to me there should be a comma after “loomed.”

The moon and Venus hung just over the bell tower.

Randy sez: Good, this adds nicely to the mood.

Paul came at dawn.

Randy sez: This is good, but I think a stronger verb might strengthen this sentence. Did Paul stagger, shuffle, creep, sidle, amble, or glide? I think you can find a verb that captures the gray mood you’ve established.

He watched the old men and women shuffle to early Mass, coats and scarves pulled tight against the sharp morning air.

Randy sez: Good, I can see this in pretty sharp detail.

Six times the bell shattered the clear air.

Randy sez: A nice strong verb there–shattered. And this is the beginning of a repetition of the phrase “Six times”, which pulls in the power of the Rule of Three that we talked about last week.

Six times the echo resounded off the mountains.

Randy sez: Good, but could it be better? Could that verb “resounded” be chosen to fit the mood better?

And six times quivers pulsed up his spine.

Randy sez: Nice nouns and verbs there: “quivers” is a good noun; “pulsed” is a visceral verb; “spine” is just the right body part for quivers to be pulsing up. My one question is this: Do we need the “And” at the beginning? Would it work better to start “Six time…” for this sentence?

Notice that Parker has resisted the urge to tell us extraneous details. We don’t know what year it is. We don’t know Paul’s last name, nor his mission here, nor why he hates his mother. We know just enough to be intrigued. Dang! I want to read the rest of this chapter and see if it lives up to the first paragraph.

Go ahead, loyal blog readers, and see if you can tweak Parker’s paragraph a bit to sharpen it up. Also, I am still taking suggestions for our next topic of discussion, so feel free to leave a comment if you’ve got something burning.