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!


  1. Daniel Smith September 24, 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    Just a thought: Why wasn’t your limerick poet named Dan? Or does naming him Ran somehow add to the humor? (I actually know someone named Three!)

    Glad to hear you had a great time at the conference (and are now back with blog posts for us wee folk)! Looking forward to more about MRUs.

  2. D.E. Hale September 24, 2008 at 9:28 pm #

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

    Okay, maybe I need to cross stitch this on a sampler or something.

  3. Daan Van der Merwe September 24, 2008 at 11:43 pm #

    Even when I began studying the craft in August 2007, I was fascinated by those pesky things, especially when I have read “How to Write the Perfect Scene”.

    Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

    I sincerely hope that Sam the Plumber will feature at least once in this workshop.

  4. Carrie Neuman September 25, 2008 at 4:27 am #

    I think I’m looking forward to Slide 4 the most. I recently bought a book that lists the areas editors look at when they decide to trash a novel. But it’s like a checklist. There’s no depth or practical advice on how to fix those areas.

    By the way, I’m looking for a good book on tension and pacing if anyone has any suggestions.

  5. Kim September 25, 2008 at 5:31 am #

    “Leave out the parts that people don’t read.”

    Sounds like when I used to run a business. The catchphrase then was, “Half of my advertising doesn’t work. But I don’t know which half.”

  6. Mark Goodyear September 25, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    You are once again my hero because you know what anapestic meter is!

    And as an editor, I confess I tell writers to “show don’t tell” all the time. But it’s really just short hand to point out where they are making the mistake that I expect them to know how to fix. Maybe that’s not fair?

    Also, I’m reminded of kindergarten show AND tell. Really that’s what we do in good writing, isn’t it? Teach AND delight? Entertain AND inspire?

  7. Ann Isik September 25, 2008 at 8:22 am #

    “Leave out the parts that people don’t read.”

    I think I have an example:

    The first page of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ describes Scrooge’s partner in business (Jacob Marley) as ‘dead as a doorknocker’. Dickens then writes at length on the expression ‘dead as a doorknocker’, in a manner which would have been considered humorous in 19th century England.

    In the 21st century however, this section slams on the brakes of the plot so hard you almost need to be roped to your reading chair to survive the crash! I always make a detour round this bit.

    Good to have you back Randy.


  8. Paulette Harris September 25, 2008 at 8:57 am #

    Thanks Randy for sharing this on behalf of all of us who couldn’t attend this year. Good stuff! 🙂

  9. Camille September 25, 2008 at 8:59 am #

    There was once a poet named Ran
    whose slides from his workshop he scanned
    for those who were left
    of wisdom bereft
    and couldn’t write a lick of poetry if their pitiful lives depended on it. Man.

    I have an anaseptic meter in my bathroom and I’m not afraid to use it. 🙂

    Welcome back.

  10. Sheila Deeth September 25, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    Love your showing, not telling, with the haiku and limerick. Looking forward to more, and encouraging more friends to see what you have to say.

  11. PatriciaW September 25, 2008 at 11:16 am #

    I’m looking forward to this. My eyes kind of glazed over and my head checked out the last time. But I know this topic’s important so I’m staying.

  12. Amy VR September 25, 2008 at 11:30 am #

    There’s this really smart guy named Ran
    who does everything that he can
    to teach us to do
    those dang MRUs…
    I hope he’s a miracle man!

    My MRUs are even worse than my poetry… I so need this refresher right now. Thank you!

  13. Liz C September 25, 2008 at 2:38 pm #

    I think you should give in and call them TPMRUs: ‘Those Pesky Motivation-Reaction Units’.

    I’m struggling with this, but with your help I think I’m actually starting to get it.

  14. Barbara September 25, 2008 at 3:29 pm #

    Hey Randy: I’ve taken some internet courses that cover this same subject. In one they were called scene-sequence units. In the one I’m taking now, they’re called action-reaction-decision units. The first one fits right in with what you’re teaching. But the second one — how does this fit in? The action-reaction part I get, but what about the decision part? How does this idea fit into your MRUs? What it comes down to is every time I think I understand something, someone comes along and throws a wrench (or a decision) into screw things up. Barbara

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