MRUs Lesson 6

Today, I’d like to continue working through my recent lecture at the ACFW conference on “Motivation Reaction Units”. This is #6 in the series, so if you’re just joining us, feel free to review the earlier blog posts to come up to speed.

In my last post, I showed some writing examples from Jane Austen and Ken Follett. Today, I’ll analyze a piece of a scene by Orson Scott Card. This is a fight scene done in zero-gravity. The setting is “Battle School,” a training ground for the next generation of soldiers. The protagonist is a boy named Ender, who is training some of his friends in combat skills when they’re attacked by some older boys. Ender first gets his friends off to safety, then takes on the attackers.

Slide 28: Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game, p. 115

Someone caught Ender by the foot. The tight grip gave Ender some leverage; he was able to stamp firmly on the other boy’s ear and shoulder, making him cry out and let go. If the other boy had let go just as Ender kicked downward, it would have hurt him much less and allowed Ender to use the maneuver as a launch. Instead, the boy had hung on too well; his ear was torn and scattering blood in the air and Ender was drifting even more slowly.

I’m doing it again, thought Ender. I’m hurting people again, just to save myself. Why don’t they leave me alone, so I don’t have to hurt them?

Randy sez: Read the above passage and identify the Motivations and the Reactions. You’ll recall that Motivations are external to Ender and they are shown objectively. Reactions are internal to Ender and are shown subjectively.

Now the question is whether this scene could be “improved.” I’ve put the word “improved” in quotes, because it all depends on what you consider “good” and “bad” writing. Remembering that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, there isn’t any hard and objective way to define “improved.” So I’ll simply define “improving” this scene to mean “making the Motivations and Reactions clearer.”

In the next slide, I’ll color-code the Motivations and Reactions and insert a few comments directly into the text.

Slide 29: Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game, p. 115

Someone caught Ender by the foot. The tight grip gave Ender some leverage; he was able to stamp firmly on the other boy’s ear and shoulder, making him cry out and let go. [What comes next is Telling.] If the other boy had let go just as Ender kicked downward, it would have hurt him much less and allowed Ender to use the maneuver as a launch. Instead, the boy had hung on too well; his ear was torn and scattering blood in the air and Ender was drifting even more slowly.[End of Telling section.]

I’m doing it again, thought Ender. I’m hurting people again, just to save myself. Why don’t they leave me alone, so I don’t have to hurt them?

Randy sez: The segment I marked above as Telling is sort of what Ender is thinking, but not quite. Note the use of the words “had” and “would have” and “was”. These are typical marks of Telling.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out how to turn this Telling into Showing. Remember that Showing is less efficient than Telling. Would it be worth the extra words to Show this rather than Tell it?

In the next example, I’ll show part of a very intense action scene from PATRIOT GAMES, by Tom Clancy. In this scene, Jack Ryan has come upon a pair of terrorists in London who have disabled a Rolls Royce and are trying to get at the car’s occupants. Ryan doesn’t know it, but the royal family is in the car. All he knows is that somebody is going to end up very dead unless he does something. So he throws a vicious body tackle at one of the terrorists from behind, grabs the man’s pistol, shoots him in the hip, and then gets into the following gunbattle with the other gentleman (who has an AK-47). Here’s the snippet. I have deleted a short segment, marked by an ellipsis:

Slide 30: Tom Clancy: Patriot Games, p. 6

The other gunman turned his head first, then swiveled off-balance to bring his gun around. Both men fired at the same instant. Ryan felt a fiery thump in his left shoulder and saw his own round take the man in the chest. The 9mm slug knocked the man backward as though from a hard punch….

Ryan kept his pistol centered on the man’s chest until he saw what had happened to his head.

“Oh God!” The surge of adrenaline left him as quickly as it had come. Time slowed back down to normal, and Ryan found himself suddenly both dizzy and breathless. His mouth was open and gasping for air.

Randy sez: You may want to analyze this for Motivations and Reactions yourself first. You’ll find they’re clearly spelled out for the most part, but there are a couple of anomalies. Do you see an ambiguity?

In the next slide, I’ll color-code the Motivations and Reactions:

Slide 31: Tom Clancy: Patriot Games, p. 6

The other gunman turned his head first, then swiveled off-balance to bring his gun around. Both men fired at the same instant. Ryan felt a fiery thump in his left shoulder and saw his own round take the man in the chest. The 9mm slug knocked the man backward as though from a hard punch….

Ryan kept his pistol centered on the man’s chest until he saw what had happened to his head.

“Oh God!” The surge of adrenaline left him as quickly as it had come. Time slowed back down to normal, and Ryan found himself suddenly both dizzy and breathless. His mouth was open and gasping for air.

Randy sez: OK, let’s walk through this in super slow motion, analyzing each Motivation and Reaction. The first Motivation shows the gunman turning his head and swiveling his gun around.

Now look at the next sentence: “Both men fired at the same instant.” That is obviously a Reaction–since Ryan fires his gun. But it’s just as obviously a Motivation–since the gunman fires his gun too. So we have a sentence that is BOTH a Motivation AND a Reaction. Has Tom Clancy committed a no-no? No, of course not. In most cases, Motivations and Reactions don’t happen simultaneously. In this rare case, they do. So you have to show them at the same time. Clancy chose the best option here.

There is another sentence showing Ryan’s Reaction to the shot fired by the other guy: “Ryan felt a fiery thump in his left shoulder.” This is a feeling, and it’s all there is to this Reaction. It’s all you need. Things are happening fast, so Clancy has pared things down to the bare minimum.

The next Reaction is a continuation of the sentence: “and saw his own round take the man in the chest. The 9mm slug knocked the man backward as though from a hard punch…” I would recommend eliminating the words “and saw” (they add nothing, since we know we’re in Ryan’s head.) I would also recommend putting this Motivation in its own paragraph. It just makes it a little clearer.

I have eliminated some words (marked by the ellipsis) which show Ryan taking a second shot at the terrorist’s head.

The next Reaction and Motivation get their own paragraph, but they are glommed into a single sentence. The Reaction is: “Ryan kept his pistol centered on the man’s chest”. The Motivation is: “until he saw what had happened to his head.” The question here is whether it would have been better to break this sentence into two, putting each into its own paragraph. My own belief is that it’s better the way Clancy wrote it here. There is such a strong connection between Ryan’s Reaction (keeping the gun centered) and the Motivation that follows (until he saw) that it just makes sense to keep them together.

Notice how well Clancy does the final Reaction. There is a reflexive exclamation (“Oh God!”) followed by a very natural set of physiological responses to coming out of a combat situation safely. There’s the rapid loss of adrenaline. Then time slows back to normal. Then Ryan is dizzy and breathless. Then he’s gasping for breath. I’ve never shot anyone’s head off, but this feels authentic. I’ll bet Clancy talked to combat veterans to get this right. If you’re going to write gore, make it accurate.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a perfectly structure set of Motivations and Reactions that nevertheless has a serious flaw in it. See ya then!

2 Comments

  1. Carrie Neuman October 7, 2008 at 4:36 am #

    Two of my favorite novels analyzed in one day. Hooray!

    As for your challenge, I’m going to vote no on Card trying to show in his passage. There’s no way to show what would have happened. But it’s very Ender for him to be in the middle of a life-threatening situation and already be second-guessing himself. The telling sacrifices pace, but it reinforces character.

  2. PatriciaW October 7, 2008 at 10:24 am #

    Again, because I think this is really important, I’m going to ask a question about your example.

    You say: The Reaction is: “Ryan kept his pistol centered on the man’s chest”. The Motivation is: “until he saw what had happened to his head.”

    But isn’t the reaction to here to “The 9mm slug knocked the man backward as though from a hard punch…” or even to “Both men fired at the same instant.”? Then the next part, “…until he saw what happened to his head” is not motivation but is more reaction, as in “Ryan kept his pistol centered on the man’s chest. He saw what happened to his head. ‘Oh God!’…

    I hope you’ll take on some of these questions in your final post.

    Randy sez: No, remember that Motivations and Reactions alternate forever. The Reaction is internal and subjective. The Motivation is external and objective. The bit about “he saw what happened to his head” is exactly what a videocamera mounted on Ryan’s shoulder would have seen. This is objective reporting of something external to Ryan, so it is a Motivation. In fact, it’s a perfect Motivation for Ryan’s next Reaction, which is to come down fast from the Xtreme adrenaline rush he’s been on. His enemy is dead. He doesn’t have to fight anymore. This is Motivation.

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