MRUs Lesson 5

Today I’d like to continue working through my ACFW workshop that I did on motivations and reactions. Our purpose here is to learn how to follow the common editorial advice to “Show, Don’t Tell.” I believe that the best way to learn to do that is to pay attention to the so-called “Motivation-Reaction Units” made popular by Dwight Swain.

If you’d like to know the theory of MRUs, you can find it in my article on Writing the Perfect Scene. Today, we’ll continue with some practical examples. We are about 2/3 of the way through my lecture, and I hope to wrap this up soon.

We’ll begin by looking at a short passage from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

Slide 25: Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, p. 89

The Longbourn party were the last of all the company to depart; and by a maneuver of Mrs. Bennet had to wait for their carriages a quarter of an hour after everybody else was gone, which gave them time to see how heartily they were wished away by some of the family. Mrs. Hurst and her sister scarcely opened their mouths except to complain of fatigue, and were evidently impatient to have the house to themselves. They repulsed every attempt of Mrs. Bennet at conversation, and by so doing, threw a languor over the whole party, which was very little relieved by the long speeches of Mr. Collins…

Randy sez: This snippet happens at the end of the ball in which Lizzy Bennet first dances with Mr. Darcy. This is Telling, not Showing. There is no POV character here, no dialogue, no action. It’s all narrative summary. Notice how efficiently Jane whizzes through 15 minutes of time. For her own reasons, she wishes to Tell it. If she had wanted to slow down and Show this, there would be no way to rescue the above passage with a bit of editing. You can’t edit Telling into Showing. You have to rewrite it completely.

19th century novels had a lot more Telling than modern novels do. A common mistake of paroled English majors who want to write fiction is to try to write like YesterGuy or YesterGirl. Let’s be honest here: if you do that, you’re slitting your literary throat. The audience for 19th century fiction died out a hundred years ago.

If you want to lament that “they wrote better fiction then,” feel free. Certainly, some great novels got written in the 19th century. They were generally great because of great themes or great dialogue. If you want to write great fiction like the 19th century writers, then choose a great theme (like they did) and write it using the best methods available to you (like they did) — using great dialogue (like they did) and great action (like they didn’t).

In the next slide, we’ll look at a passage from a modern novel that is Shown, not Told. This comes from a scene in which a man’s last camel has collapsed in the middle of the Sahara desert. He is far from the next oasis, and this camel is his best hope to live another day:

Slide 26: Ken Follett: The Key To Rebecca, p. 3

[The camel’s] forelegs folded, then its rear went down, and it couched on top of the hill like a monument, staring across the desert with the indifference of the dying.

The man hauled on its nose rope. Its head came forward and its neck stretched out, but it would not get up. The man went behind and kicked its hindquarters as hard as he could, three or four times. Finally he took out a razor-sharp curved Bedouin knife with a narrow point and stabbed the camel’s rump. Blood flowed from the wound but the camel did not even look around.

Randy sez: This passage is Shown well. Notice that with roughly the same number of words as Jane Austen used to cover a quarter of an hour, Follett covers maybe half a minute of time. And yet the pace of the scene feels much more lively than the languid pace of the Austen scene.

This is important: using the same number of words to cover LESS time can often feel FASTER. Why? It’s the principle of super-slow-motion. If you’ve ever watched a football instant reply, you know that running high-action scenes very slowly lets you capture every bit of the action. (You’d be crazy to do this in a low-action scene, but it works in a high-action scene.) In the old Kung Fu TV series, the crucial bits of each fight scene were shown in slow-motion. It worked.

The scene above with the camel is not a particularly high-action scene, so it’s Shown in “real-time” — it takes roughly as much time to read it as it would take for the scene to play out in real life.

In the next slide, I’ll do my color-coding trick to split out the Motivations and the Reactions and you’ll see that Follett could have improved the passage slightly at one point. Can you see where before I point it out? Look closely for a minute before you read further.

Ready? OK, here’s the next slide. Motivations are colored in black. Reactions of the man are colored red:

Slide 27: Ken Follett: The Key To Rebecca, p. 3

[The camel’s] forelegs folded, then its rear went down, and it couched on top of the hill like a monument, staring across the desert with the indifference of the dying.

The man hauled on its nose rope. Its head came forward and its neck stretched out, but it would not get up. The man went behind and kicked its hindquarters as hard as he could, three or four times. [Randy sez: We need a Motivation here!] Finally he took out a razor-sharp curved Bedouin knife with a narrow point and stabbed the camel’s rump. Blood flowed from the wound but the camel did not even look around.

Randy sez: The reason I argue that we need a Motivation in the square brackets is because there is a time lag after the man kicks the camel and before he stabs it with the knife. We know there’s a time lag, because Follett uses the word “Finally” to initiate the sentence with the knife.

What was happening in the time lag? We aren’t Shown. We can guess that the camel doesn’t react, but we aren’t Shown. The scene would be a little sharper if we saw that failure to react. That would be a reasonable motivation for the man to pull out the knife. As the scene is written, the knife-work seems just a wee bit unmotivated, almost cruel.

Tomorrow, I’ll analyze a fight scene by another modern master.

See ya then!

10 Comments

  1. Carrie Neuman October 4, 2008 at 4:36 am #

    Randy, I know you usually set the Motivations and Reactions off in their own paragraphs, but am I right in thinking the example works because there’s only a sentence or two of each?

    Randy sez: The example works because the Motivations and Reactions are actually separate entities, so that it’s POSSIBLE to color-code them as I did. Compare that to the Jane Austen example, where no color-coding is possible. I think the MRUs would be slightly clearer if they were each broken out into a separate paragraph, but very few published authors do this. I believe it’s better to use separate paragraphs, for the same reason that dialogue reads better when each speaker gets a new paragraph–it’s just clearer. But this is not yet the standard. When I have converted the whole world to using MRUs, then maybe it’ll be the standard, but it hasn’t happened yet. 🙁

  2. Jessie October 4, 2008 at 6:20 am #

    Thanks Randy! This is helpful since a couple of crits have told me I’m ‘telling” too much.

  3. Kathryn October 4, 2008 at 8:07 am #

    See, this is where I get confused. When do/don’t you paragraph motivation from reaction?

  4. Daniel Smith October 4, 2008 at 8:28 am #

    Carrie, I had the same thought. It seems to work like this though. Is that maybe because the camel isn’t a potential POV character and so the entire POV is implied to be from the perspective of the man? Or possibly because the camel isn’t reactive in the same sense? He actually doesn’t react to the man even though it has the MRU structure. Just wondering.

  5. Sam R October 4, 2008 at 5:44 pm #

    Did the man kick the camel three or four times in one sharp burst, or did he step back each time, his frustration becoming more intense at each failure? The “finally” hints at the latter. I’m wondering if putting all the kicks into one phrase (“three or four times”) has in effect turned showing into telling. Picking up on Randy’s slo-mo idea, could Ken Follett have made his scene more effective if he’d slowed down those three or four kicks – showing them one by one along with the man’s increasing exasperation?

    Also, while I could empathise with the Longbourn party’s discomfort at overstaying their welcome (in this example we seem to be given the motivations, perhaps Jane Austen expected her readers to provide the emotional reactions) I felt that the lack of the man’s emotional reaction to the obstinacy of his camel made the Follett extract feel flat in comparison. I was left wondering whether his stabbing the camel was an old Bedouin technique to get camels moving (potentially a good idea, and heightening the tension because it didn’t work), or whether it was an act of anger/frustration further complicating his position (a bad idea, but again a good authorial device). Makes a big difference to how we react. Could Follett have involved/informed us more by showing the man’s internal responses (reactions) that drove his overt actions of tugging, kicking and stabbing?

  6. PatriciaW October 5, 2008 at 9:00 pm #

    Doesn’t “but he would not get up” serve as both reaction of the camel and motivation for the man? Obviously he wants the camel to move. The camel doesn’t move so he goes around and kicks it. Seems like a good economy of words to serve two purposes.

  7. Mark Goodyear October 6, 2008 at 6:18 am #

    I love Jane Austen. But you make a good point that people should stop pining about how wonderful she and Dickens and Shelley were, and write for the audience of the 21st century.

    She didn’t have to show as much because she didn’t have to compete with movies. I’m guessing her main competition was nonfiction and personal correspondence.

  8. Kristi Holl October 6, 2008 at 10:38 am #

    I’m another Jane Austen fan (and anyone who can write like her), but I confess we’re in the minority. I wish there were more writers like her though! With the fast pace we live at, it’s such a joy to relax at night with something languid. 😎 Thanks for these writing lessons, Randy. You have a sharp editing eye.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  9. Ann Isik October 6, 2008 at 11:43 am #

    Randy will put me right on this if I’ve got it wrong but I was listening to Fiction 201 on my iPod earlier today and I believe he said that a new paragraph is introduced every time the POV character acts.

    I believe I have offended by mentioning Austen and Dickens and the Brontes (not Shelley)! My apologies! I won’t do it again! I’ll keep my mouth firmly shut from now on!

    Ann

  10. Bonnie October 9, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    I’m also a hardcore Jane Austen fan, though I agree with Randy that writers today can’t write like she did. However, I would point out his advice to study the dialogue that she and other 18th century authors wrote. Some of the spars between Lizzie and Mr. Darcy are brilliant. Her characterization is also excellent–you never forget her characters or get them mixed up with others (which you definately can’t say about some modern authors who may have mastered the showing not telling). So while we may adapat our style for the modern reader who needs faster-paced action, we can still learn a lot from Austen and her contemporaries.

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