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!


  1. Richard Mabry October 1, 2008 at 5:02 am #

    Thanks for the refresher on MRU’s. This concept was a major part of what I took away from your mentoring class at Mount Hermon. You even convinced me to buy (and read) Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the $elling Writer. Glad you’re sharing the material again.

  2. Pam Halter October 1, 2008 at 5:43 am #

    Good break down … easy to understand … thanks, Randy.

  3. Mark Goodyear October 1, 2008 at 6:44 am #

    I’m eagerly awaiting today’s post for your examples.

  4. Sheila Deeth October 1, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks Randy. I’m working on using these in very short pieces for practice.

  5. D.E. Hale October 1, 2008 at 11:25 am #

    Ok, well that definitely cleared up any questions I had…for now! HA!

  6. Kathryn October 1, 2008 at 11:34 am #

    This last lesson was the most enlightening for me! Outside then inside is simple to remember and understand. Thanx!

  7. Lara October 1, 2008 at 1:25 pm #

    Thank you for sharing that. I’ve read Swain’s book and other posts you’ve done on MRU’s, but somehow wasn’t quite getting it. Now it all makes perfect sense. Just need to go apply it now.

  8. Wayne October 1, 2008 at 7:49 pm #

    MRU is similar to what happens to people in real life crisis, according to an excellent book I’m reading on the psychology of disaster. THE UNTHINKABLE: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why. By Amanda Ripley.

  9. Sharon A.Lavy October 2, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    Thanks Randy. I appreciate the “class”.

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