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.

20 Comments

  1. Iain M Norman May 28, 2008 at 2:18 am #

    Design Patterns! Get in touch with your inner geek. *grins*

    I am.

  2. Nicola Marsh May 28, 2008 at 3:23 am #

    Really looking forward to the discussion on MRUs, Randy (I only recently heard of them through Margie Lawson’s ‘Deep Editing’ course.)

    With your reference to ‘formula romances’ not sure if you’re referring to category romance? (eg. the many series of Harlequin Mills and Boon) I’m a romance novelist who writes for 2 of these series, Harlequin Romance and Harlequin Modern Heat/Presents and while there are guidelines (eg. in regards to word count and the type of characters and locations preferred) there is no formula as to when the characters must meet, by what page or any other such restrictions.

    I think the guidelines have been mistaken for ‘formula’?

  3. Karla Akins May 28, 2008 at 5:40 am #

    Can an MRU last an entire chapter?

    And Randy, do you “twitter?” (twitter.com) If so, I’d like to follow you. I’m selahdream.

  4. Lois Hudson May 28, 2008 at 6:06 am #

    It’s neat when a fundamental is applicable “outside the lines” or the box, or whatever else shuts you in creatively.
    As a former music teacher I urged, but didn’t demand, learning the fundamentals, then allowed breaking all the rules which gave students the incentive to actually enjoy the process. Works with cooking, too. Learn the recipe first, then do any experimentation you’re brave enough to try. So I’m off to hie meself to Randy’s WPS to learn more about MRUs.

  5. Daan Van der Merwe May 28, 2008 at 7:54 am #

    Thank you very much for this topic Randy. As you undoubtedly know, I was sold on MRU’s since the first time I’ve read HOW TO WRITE THE PERFECT SCENE 10 months ago.

    I’m leaving Canada for South Africa this evening with a 20 hour stop over in Amsterdam Holland and will be back in South Africa on Friday 1pm. pacific time. Catch ya then!!

  6. Gina May 28, 2008 at 7:55 am #

    I’m looking forward to this teaching. After hearing it several times, I’m just beginning to grasp and use it in my writing

  7. Lois Hudson May 28, 2008 at 8:20 am #

    Safe trip, Daan!

  8. D.E. Hale May 28, 2008 at 9:23 am #

    Yes, MRU’s again! You would think that as long as I’ve been using this technique that I’d have it down by now, but that’s not the case. My biggest problems occur when my MC is by himself – say, for instance, in a prison cell. Now, he doesn’t stay alone for long at any point, but while he’s alone I have trouble figuring out how to do those darn MRU’s.

    I can’t figure out what the Motivations are, or if there are any. The MC is doing all the action (trying to pry open the shackles, pacing, whatever) so is that a “kind” of Motivation, or is everything he’s doing Reaction.

    Anyway, I look forward to this. Never hurts to go back over the MRU’s – they are so very useful, and have transformed my writing.

  9. Pam Halter May 28, 2008 at 9:34 am #

    Godspeed, Daan!

    I don’t see how using MRUs can be labeled formulaic since life is full of motivation and our reactions to it. It makes your characters real.

  10. Tonya Root May 28, 2008 at 9:49 am #

    I have just begun reading your blog over the last couple of weeks and have already learned so very much. I am definitely looking forward to this discussion and believe it will help my fiction tremendously. Thanks!

  11. Carla Stewart May 28, 2008 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks for revisiting this topic, Randy. Perhaps if I study it once again and apply it to my writing, it will become more intuitive for me. I’ve already read your Perfect Scene article again. I must say, you boil it all down better than Swain, whose book I keep within reach at all times. I’ve jotted it all on a card so it’s a visible reminder when I’m writing.

    One question: I’ve just ended a chapter with the protag looking into the barrel of a gun. Is it okay to have the Motivation end there and pick back up with the Reaction at the beginning of the next chapter?

  12. Barb Haley May 28, 2008 at 10:55 am #

    I like the idea of writing with MRU’s. Since I first learned of this method, I’ve wanted to try it, but was always in the middle of a book I had already had going.

    I’m excited, because I’m currently researching my next book and can try using the snowflake method from the very beginning. Whoo Hoo!

  13. Jim May 28, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    Ain’t semantics a b****? In ten words or less, how would you differentiate “pattern” from “structure,” or either from “process?” The infamous Snowflake Method could be both “structure” and “process,” while MRUs could be “structure” or “pattern.”

    Actually, your answer might be just two words: “Get lost!”

  14. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren May 28, 2008 at 12:44 pm #

    I’d be glad to learn more about MRU’s. I find them tremendously useful. I am writing a rough draft at the moment and I can hear my internal dialogue: “There’s a nice motivation!”, “Good response!”, “Will have to fix the URM order here in the rewrite!”.

    But it is only because I wrote a number of scenes bit by bit. What I do is copy the MRU list at the bottom of the scene so I keep it in sight. This is my list:

    +Motivation
    +Reaction Feeling
    +Reaction Reflex
    +Reaction Rational Action and Speech

    Above it I then write the scene and as I write I mentally ticking every step of as I do it. And then I rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

    In my mind the MRU concept has been the most valuable piece of practical writing advice I have ever heard of.

  15. Peppi May 28, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    This will be exciting. Since I’ve read HOW TO WRITE THE PERFECT SCENE, I’ve worked hard at applying MRU’s to my writing. Like D.E. Hale stated, I too find it difficult to uncover the motivation at certain points in a scene.

    The MRU definitely puts you in the heat of the moment living every bit of the action with the character of focus. It definitely helped me break away from my natural (and un-exciting) method of narrative summary.

    Now, if only we could put printed MRU examples in fortune cookies…

  16. Parker Haynes May 28, 2008 at 2:14 pm #

    Looking forward to these lessons on MRU’s and hoping to learn more. I understand and appreciate the concept, but being a hard-core “fly by the seat of the pants” writer, I stumble over actually incorporating it into my work.

  17. Camille May 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm #

    Got samples? Some of us (me) are mentally challenged and need an example.

    I try to keep Motivation and Reaction alternating as I write—when it occurs to me—but I can’t always focus on it and the 29 other things in mind as I’m creating a scene. Do you lay down the groundwork for a scene then come back and arrange the Ms & Rs? Sometimes it’s hard to keep the R out of the same paragraph as the M.

    Do you think the bolded line below is a reaction? Does it need a new paragraph? I think it would draw too much attention to it, and it doesn’t seem right as part of the next line.

    What about the last paragraph? It’s both m & r, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be weird to break it apart?

    =================

    Iain rose and walked among the stones. Crouching down, he picked up a rock and stared at the jagged edges. He squeezed until it dug in, sending sharp, stabbing pain through his hand.

    Most of the grave stones around him were inscribed with names and dates. Each marked the length of a life. Some long, some brief. Perhaps God hoards the best ones for himself.

    “Is that it then? Are you a pathetic, selfish old man?”

    Iain stood and waited. He didn’t really expect an answer, and he didn’t get one. Nothing but a quiet breeze carrying cheery twitters and the sharp, blooming smells of summer.

    “Right then.” He stood. “I’m finished here.”

    Iain turned and stalked back through the cemetery toward the trail. But a surge of adrenaline seized him and he spun back around, rock in hand. With a grunt, he hurled it as hard as he could. It hit the side of the silent old church with a decisive smack. The sound echoed through the churchyard, briefly silencing the bird song. Blind fury drove Iain up the darkening trail and back through the woods.

  18. Brian T. Carroll May 28, 2008 at 9:07 pm #

    I’ve come to the conclusion that my own rebellion against the “formula” of scenes is more in the large-scare scene/sequel than with the small-scale MRU. I just reread chapter 1 of TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, looking for the MRU’s, and I do see them. What I don’t see is the Scene/Sequel structure. If anything, the book is starting with a sequel, not to a moment of disaster, but to the whole history of Maycomb, Alabama, going back to the ancestors who weren’t in the Battle of Hastings. I find a similar pattern in books like PEACE LIKE A RIVER, GILEAD, and THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. In fact, I think I would find it in most of the books I choose to read, and ALL of the books I’d take the time to read twice. This may get to the core of the Literary/Genre dichotomy. A rapid cycle of Goal/Conflict/Disaster has no appeal for me. I want time to savor the Reaction/Dilemma/Decision cycle, and then, if a couple of disasters come along later in the book, I’m fine with that. And the MRU’s can be very subtile things. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the first real MRU is on page 7, Jem and Scout meet Dill and are motivated to test him out and establish a pecking order. He’s seen the movie Dracula, and can repeat the story. They react by accepting him as a playmate. That’s all there is to it.

  19. Suzanne June 1, 2008 at 9:54 pm #

    The question asked was: 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?

    My advice? TRY IT! Try it on your own work and you’ll see what a difference it makes. When I first read about MRU’s, I thought such a simple concept couldn’t possibly make a big difference. So I tried it on a small section of a chapter I was having trouble with. I couldn’t believe the difference it made! Then I applied it to a whole section, submitted it to my critique group, and they agreed it was much better.

    I can’t say enough about MRU’s. Learning and applying this technique has literally transformed my writing.
    Suzanne :O)

  20. Sinan Esencan January 26, 2014 at 6:32 am #

    Hello Randy,

    I absolutely disagree what you say by motivation-reaction units (although i agree with well-known action/reaction scenes) that MRUs will be useful for our fiction. The important principle should be kept in mind that you cannot go too far and make novel writing process in such formulaic/patternic way which kills imagination in the first hand. After all, with MRUs, i wonder how many successful novels Dwight Swain wrote compared to the legends before, during and after his area who did not follow his detailed principles on MRUs. I surely believe that shows the whole story about being too formulaic or patternic (or whatever you call) is totally useless.

    Regards…

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