Archive | September, 2008

MRUs Lesson 4

Lately I’ve been blogging through the slides from my workshop on Motivations and Reactions that I gave at the recent ACFW conference. Today I’ll continue into the theory part of the workshop (only a few slides) which I hope makes good sense, now that I’ve given some examples to show what can go wrong.

Slide 21: The Basic MRU Structure

  • Motivation–outside the POV character
  • Reaction–inside the POV character

Randy sez: You can always tell whether something is a Motivation or a Reaction by asking whether the focus is inside or outside your Point-Of-View character. If it’s outside, then it’s a Motivation. If it’s inside, then it’s a Reaction. Now let’s look at each of these in turn.

Slide 22: About The Motivation

  • The Motivation is shown in real-time, it is not a summary of what happens over an extended period of time.
  • It is objective–what a videocam would record
  • It is external to the POV character
  • It need not make any reference to the POV character. You don’t need to say, “Jack saw…” or “Jane heard…”. Just show the reader what Jack saw or Jane heard.

Randy sez: A couple of comments are in order here. You don’t have complete liberty in showing a Motivation. You should only show what the POV character can see or hear or smell. Imagine that there’s a videocam on the POV character’s shoulder. Your Motivation shows what the videocam can capture. If there’s a bandit creeping up noiselessly behind Jack, then the videocam won’t see it and you can’t show it to your reader. But if that bandit steps on a creaky board, then the videocam can hear it and you can let the reader hear that sound. And then Jack can react to it. It is superfluous to keep saying “Jack saw…” or “Jack heard…” because the reader is smart enough to know that. Don’t waste words telling the reader what they already know.

Slide 23: The Reaction

  • The Reaction is shown in real-time.
  • It is subjective–using the POV character’s mental state as a frame of reference
  • It is internal to the POV character
  • Three primary parts:
    • Feeling
    • “Reflexive” or automatic actions
    • Speech and Rational actions

    >

    Randy sez: When I talk about “feelings” I mean interior emotive reactions. You show those first (usually) because they happen very fast (usually). If a tiger wanders into your office, within a tenth of a second, you feel an enormous adrenaline rush. This happens before you have time to move, speak, shoot, or call Sarah Palin. It happens FIRST so you show it FIRST.

    When I talk about “reflexive” actions, I’m speaking informally, not in the technical biological sense. Technically, if you touch a hot stove, your hand will reflexively jerk away before you even feel the pain. But I’m not talking about that here. In the rare case of a true reflexive action, do show that first–even before the feelings. But in normal situations, you’ll have an emotive reaction and THEN you’ll have an automatic response (that you don’t have to think about). That can happen in less than half a second. If you’re a trained hunter with your gun in hand, when the tiger walks into your office, you’ll feel that rush of fear but your hand will quickly be pulling your gun up and you’ll be aiming and firing without much rational thought required. If you’re not a trained hunter, you’ll have to think about all that stuff and your response will be much slower. And the tiger will have a nice lunch.

    When I talk about speech and rational actions, I’m talking about anything you have to think about. Talking is (usually) rational. You might squeak out some meaningless word in fear, but that’s not rational, and that would qualify as a “reflexive” word. Interior monologue is also rational.

    The key thing here is to get things in the right order. If your POV character’s Reaction has a Feeling AND a Reflexive Action AND a Rational Action, then put them in that order. Then the reader doesn’t feel like you’re jerking them around. The sequence will feel normal.

    If you show the Rational Action first and THEN show the Reflexive Action and THEN show the Feeling, it won’t feel right. The reader will probably not be able to explain why it doesn’t feel right. Most readers aren’t trained in the analysis of MRUs. But their gut still tells them when it’s not quite right. You want your reader to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. So give them an experience that feels as much like reality as possible.

    We can summarize all this in the next slide, which is the last one on theory:

    Slide 24: The Reason for the Structure

    • Split Motivations and Reactions into separate paragraphs simply for clarity.
    • The Motivation shows what the POV character sees, hears, smells, etc.
    • The Reaction shows what the POV charactfeels, thinks, does, etc., in the correct order
      • Feelings are fastest–show them first
      • “Reflexive” actions are second fastest
      • Speech and rational action are slowest

    Randy sez: That’s enough on theory. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some examples of scenes that are TOLD and scenes that are SHOWN. Some of these simply can’t be rescued. Some of them need a little tweaking.

    When we finish going through my examples, I think it’ll be useful to work through some of yours. So look through your work to find an example of a few paragraphs that you want critiquing on for Motivations and Reactions. In a few days, I’ll ask you to post those here and we’ll analyze them then. (Don’t jump the gun, please! Wait till I ask for examples.)

    See ya tomorrow!

MRUs Lesson 3

Last week I began a series of articles that recap everything I said in my workshop at the ACFW conference. The topic of my workshop was “Those Pesky Motivations and Reactions” and the goal is to flesh out the theory with some examples. If you want the theory, you can read my article “Writing the Perfect Scene“.

Today, we’ll pick up with a couple of fight scenes, one that is SHOWN and one that is TOLD. As we’ll see, there is just no rescue for the scene that is TOLD. You can’t tweak it to make it better. All you can do is throw it away and write a new version that SHOWs it. Both of these scenes are by the same author and appear in the same book.

Slide 17: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 18

Tom snaked in and hit the soldier with a short left hook to the head and went in deep to the belly with his right. The soldier let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound as Tom danced back.

The soldier swung a slow, heavy right hand at Tom. Tom ducked under it and dug both his fists into the soldier’s soft middle. The solder bent almost double in pain and Tom hooked both hands to the face. The soldier began to spurt blood and he waved his hands feebly in front of him and tried to clinch.

Randy sez: This scene is SHOWN very nicely. Tom is a young thug who has picked a fight with an older, bigger, and stronger soldier, just for the fun of it. Tom is a brilliant street fighter and he quickly takes the soldier apart. The bystanders are awed into silence.

I have paragraphed the scene exactly as Irwin Shaw wrote it. In the next slide, I’ll color-code the parts that show Tom acting (in red) and the parts that show the soldier acting (in black). Notice that there is a very clear dividing line. First Tom acts, then the soldier acts, then Tom again, then the soldier again. The action see-saws back and forth. The effect is that you can see this scene in real-time as it develops.

Slide 18: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 18

Tom snaked in and hit the soldier with a short left hook to the head and went in deep to the belly with his right. The soldier let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound as Tom danced back.

The soldier swung a slow, heavy right hand at Tom. Tom ducked under it and dug both his fists into the soldier’s soft middle. The solder bent almost double in pain and Tom hooked both hands to the face. The soldier began to spurt blood and he waved his hands feebly in front of him and tried to clinch.

Randy sez: This fight scene is beautifully shown (if you like that sort of thing.) If you don’t like that sort of thing, it brilliantly displays an appalling act of violence. But the point is that you can SEE the action.

The only thing I would recommend to improve it is to insert paragraph breaks each time the color-coding changes. The reason is that (just like with the dialogue examples we saw in Lesson 2) breaking the paragraph aids the reader’s eye in discerning who is the actor. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary, but it helps. Anything you can do to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience is money in your bank account.

Now let’s look at a poorly done fight scene. In this scene, Tom is a bit older but no wiser, and he is now working at an upper-class gym as a sparring partner for wealthy men. In this scene, a rich jerk named Greening has been sparring pretty harshly with Tom’s boss, who finally asks Tom to take over. The boss knows Tom is going to tear Greening up, and Tom is eager for a bit of brutality, since it adds meaning to his crummy life. Here’s the scene…

Slide 19: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 297

They fought without stopping for the usual two-minute break. Greening fought controlledly, brutally, using his height and weight, Thomas with the swift malevolence that he had carefully controlled all these months. Here you are, Captain, he was saying to himself as he burrowed in, using everything he knew, stinging, hurting, ducking, here you are Rich-boy, here you are Policeman, are you getting your ten dollars worth?

They were both bleeding from the nose and mouth when Thomas finally got in the one he knew was the beginning of the end.

Randy sez: The above scene is TOLD, not SHOWN. We can’t see them “fight without stopping”–not in real-time anyway. That is TELLING. Note the use of adverbs: “controlledly” and “brutally”. Note the use of continuous-action verbs (they usually end in “-ing”): “saying” and “stinging” and “hurting” and “ducking” and “bleeding”. Note the use of passive verbs: “was saying” and “were bleeding” and “was the beginning of the end.”

Is the passage well written? Yes. Shaw is a master storyteller. It apparently suited his purpose to summarize this fight scene in narrative summary, which is very efficient, rather than SHOW it and use up half a page.

But in my view, it doesn’t suit the reader’s purpose, which is to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. The reader wants to feel those punches, smell the sweat, jab Greening in the jaw, and make the bastard bleed. Why? The reader just does, that’s why.

Note that you simply can’t tweak this scene here to SHOW the action. If you want to SHOW it, you’ll have to rewrite it completely. To see this, try color-coding it so that your eye easily picks out Tom’s actions and Greening’s actions. You can’t do it. In the language of fiction teacher Dwight Swain, there are no “motivations” and no “reactions”. (We’ll define those terms soon.)

Now let me summarize what I believe should be the structure of an action scene, and you’ll notice immediately that it’s very similar to the structure of dialogue.

Slide 20: The Structure of Action

Action has a somewhat more complex structure that many writers these days violate:

  • Each character gets a new paragraph when he takes an action.
  • Each action should be shown in real-time, not summarized. Avoid “continuous action” verbs that end with “-ing”.
  • Use verbs, not adverbs, to specify the actions.

Randy sez: These rules are not nearly as universally observed as the rules for dialogue that we gave in Slide 16. But they should be! Few writers these days have their dialogue scenes stamped with “SHOW DON’T TELL” because most writers use the standard structure for dialogue. But many writers have their action scenes stamped with those very irritating words, and the reason is because they don’t use the correct structure for their action.

Remember: The purpose of structure is NOT to limit you. It’s to help you help the reader. The reader wants a Powerful Emotional Experience. By choosing a suitable structure that gives subtle visual cues, you help the reader do that. And you help yourself by spotting right away when you are TELLING instead of SHOWING.

Tomorrow, we’ll get very explicit about exactly how to structure your scenes for maximum effect. We’ll define “motivations” and “reactions” and analyze the parts of each.

See ya tomorrow!

MRUs Lesson 2

Yesterday, I began working through my talk on those pesky “Motivation-Reaction Units” that I gave at the recent ACFW conference. Today, I’ll continue on and get into some examples.

Slide 12: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 61

In this slide, I show an example of dialogue that is harder to read than it should be. There are no quotation marks. There are no paragraph breaks when the speakers change. In the example, taken from a courtroom scene, Charles Darnay is on trial for his life on charges of spying. Darnay is innocent, but the prosecutor has brought out a false witness who testifies against him. Now Darnay’s attorney begins the cross examination and neatly makes mincemeat of him:

Had he ever been a spy himself? No, he scorned the base insinuation. What did he live upon? His property. Where was his property? He didn’t precisely remember where it was. What was it? No business of anybody’s. Had he inherited it? Yes, he had. From whom? Distant relation. Very distant? Rather. Ever been in prison? Certainly not. Never in a debtor’s prison? Didn’t see what that had to do with it. Never in a debtor’s prison?–Come, once again. Never? Yes. How many times? Two or three times. Not five or six? Perhaps. Of what profession? Gentleman. Ever been kicked? Might have been. Frequently? No. Ever kicked downstairs? Decidedly not; once received a kick on the top of a staircase, and fell downstairs of his own accord. Kicked on that occasion for cheating at dice? Something to that effect was said by the intoxicated liar who committed the assault, but it was not true.

Randy sez: This dialogue is quite funny, but much of the punch is lost because the formating is done so badly. The important fact to notice is that this IS a dialogue. You can see this easily in the next slide where I color-code the words spoken by the two speakers. The attorney’s questions are in black; the witness’s answers are in red. You now see the back-and-forth of the dialogue visually on the screen.

Slide 13: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 61

Had he ever been a spy himself? No, he scorned the base insinuation. What did he live upon? His property. Where was his property? He didn’t precisely remember where it was. What was it? No business of anybody’s. Had he inherited it? Yes, he had. From whom? Distant relation. Very distant? Rather. Ever been in prison? Certainly not. Never in a debtor’s prison? Didn’t see what that had to do with it. Never in a debtor’s prison?–Come, once again. Never? Yes. How many times? Two or three times. Not five or six? Perhaps. Of what profession? Gentleman. Ever been kicked? Might have been. Frequently? No. Ever kicked downstairs? Decidedly not; once received a kick on the top of a staircase, and fell downstairs of his own accord. Kicked on that occasion for cheating at dice? Something to that effect was said by the intoxicated liar who committed the assault, but it was not true.

Randy sez: Notice how much better this dialogue would work if only Dickens had taken the trouble to add a little structure to it — quotation marks, proper paragraphing. Now look at the extraordinary difference it makes when Dickens does exactly that, only 2 pages later. In this next example, the prosecutor is interrogating a witness very unfairly, trying to get him to “recognize” Charles Darnay as the gentleman with whom he had shared a carriage ride a few years earlier:

Slide 14: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 63

“Mr. Lorry, look upon the prisoner. Was he one of the two passengers?”

“I cannot undertake to say that he was.”

“Does he resemble either of these two passengers?”

“Both were so wrapped up, and the night was so dark, and we were all so reserved, that I cannot undertake to say even that.”

“Mr. Lorry, look again upon the prisoner. Supposing him wrapped up as those passengers were, is there anything in his bulk and stature to render it unlikely that he was one of them?”

“No.”

“You will not swear, Mr. Lorry, that he was not one of them?”

“No.”

Randy sez: There is a bit of humor here, but it’s not nearly as sharp as in the earlier passage. Note that this bit of dialogue is quite a bit easier to read than the previous one. Why? In a word, structure. This passage is structured properly with quotation marks and paragraph breaks. In the next slide, I’ll color-code this dialogue as I did before, and you’ll see that the color-coding is completely unnecessary, because the structure already does all the work.

Slide 15: Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, p. 63

“Mr. Lorry, look upon the prisoner. Was he one of the two passengers?”

“I cannot undertake to say that he was.”

“Does he resemble either of these two passengers?”

“Both were so wrapped up, and the night was so dark, and we were all so reserved, that I cannot undertake to say even that.”

“Mr. Lorry, look again upon the prisoner. Supposing him wrapped up as those passengers were, is there anything in his bulk and stature to render it unlikely that he was one of them?”

“No.”

“You will not swear, Mr. Lorry, that he was not one of them?”

“No.”

Randy sez: As I said earlier, the structure imposed on this by the author makes the color-coding superfluous. The back-and-forth of the dialogue is obvious by the form on the page. The reader doesn’t have to work as hard. The reader can enter more easily into the fictive dream. That’s what you want to do — make it as easy as possible for your reader to get lost inside your story.

Slide 16: The Structure of Dialogue

Dialogue has a simple structure that few writers these days would violate:

  • All words spoken by characters are in
    quote marks.
  • Each speaker gets his own paragraph.
  • Dialogue tags are used when needed. These can be simple attributions or action tags.

Randy sez: The purpose of this structure is to provide the reader with visual cues that enable her to understand the dialogue more easily. No writer would consider this structure as “limiting” or “artificial”. The structure is just there to enhance the reading experience.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a couple of action scenes. One of these is well-done and one is poorly done. The odd thing is that the same author wrote both scenes, and they appear in the same book. But one is well-structured and the other is badly structured, and that makes an enormous difference to the reading experience.

See ya then!

MRUs Lesson 1

Last week I taught a one-hour workshop on those pesky “Motivation-Reaction Units” at the ACFW conference in Minneapolis.

Today, I’d like to begin a multi-day series in which I go through my lecture notes for those of you who weren’t at the conference. This will allow me to present the last few slides of my talk, which was ingloriously cut off when I ran out of time. My talk had 35 slides. The first two were just a title page and copyright notice, both far too boring to show here.

Slide 3: Preview

Before I define what “Motivation-Reaction Units” are, let me give an overview of the workshop. My talk has four main parts:

  • Your Primary Goal In Writing Fiction
  • Dialogue
  • Dialogue Plus Action
  • Real-World Examples

Slide 4: “Show, Don’t Tell”

The most infuriating advice an editor can give you is “Show, Don’t Tell.” Why? Because they are TELLING you to “Show, Don’t Tell,” rather than “SHOWING” you how to “Show, Don’t Tell.”

The second most infuriating advice is to “Leave out the parts that people don’t read.” Yeah, great. Which parts are those?

In this workshop, I’m going to SHOW you how to “Show, Don’t Tell.” I’m also going to show you which parts people don’t read. It’ll then be up to you whether to leave them out or not. But at least you’ll know what they are.

Slide 5: Your Primary Goal As A Novelist

I believe that your primary goal as a novelist is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you do this, then you can do anything else and your reader will follow. You can be teachy and you can be preachy and nobody will complain. If you fail to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then nothing else you do will be right. Ted Dekker and Karen Kingsbury and J.K. Rowling and Stephen King give their readers a Powerful Emotional Experience. You should too.

Slide 6: When To Show, When To Tell

If you have a scene that gives the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then all is well. Show this scene. If you have a scene that does not give the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then you are a vile, scurvy dog and your scene ought not to live. Kill it and tell it somewhere, as fast and as efficiently as possible, but only if it needs to be told. Otherwise, consign it to the flames of Perdition.

Slide 7: Dialogue and Action

There are two main kinds of things you need to be able to show well. You can mix and match these, or you can show them separately. But you must master these.

  • Dialogue
  • Action

Slide 8: A Word About Structure

All literary forms have structure. Here are three common structures:

  • Haiku: 3 lines; a word picture in 5-7-5 syllables, no rhyme, no rhythm
  • Limerick: 5 lines, must be funny, AABBA rhyme scheme, typically 8-8-5-5-8 syllables in anapestic rhythm
  • Motivation-Reaction Unit: outside/inside

The haiku and limerick structures really don’t need any explanation. You already know these structures and can easily recognize them. The Motivation-Reaction Unit actually has a simpler structure than either of these: what I call “outside/inside”. We’ll discuss in enormous detail what this means later in the lecture.

Slide 9: Is This A Haiku?

Haiku doesn’t rhyme
At least, not most of the time.
It’s five, seven, five.

We took a vote in the class to determine whether the above is a haiku. It has 3 lines. The lines have 5 syllables, then 7, then 5. So it nominally has the structure to be a haiku. However, this is not a word-picture. It doesn’t fulfill the role a haiku is suppose to have. So it’s not a “real” haiku.

Slide 10: Is This A Limerick?

There once was a poet named Ran
Whose poetry wouldn’t quite scan.
He said, “I try hard…
But I guess I’m no Bard…
Because I always have to cram as many words in the last line as I possibly can!”

We took a vote in the class to decide if this is a limerick. It is clearly close: it has 5 lines, with the right rhyme scheme (AABBA), the right meter (anapestic), and almost the right number of syllables in each line. But the last line has way too many syllables. Is it a limerick? The class decided that it is–because it’s funny, which is the reason a limerick exists. The point of this limerick is that it doesn’t scan. It’s self-referential. This is definitely a limerick.

Slide 11: Structure Is Not Enough!

The “haiku” I wrote has the right structure, but it is not a word picture–it fails to meet the objective.

The “limerick” I adapted doesn’t quite have the right structure, but it’s funny–it meets the objective.

Moral: If you have a choice between getting your MRU structure right and giving your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, do the right thing.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with an analysis of two dialogues in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, by Charles Dickens. We’ll show how structuring your dialogue can make it far more readable and help create that Powerful Emotional Experience.

See ya then!