MRUs Lesson 7

I’d like to soon wrap up the series of blogs I began a couple of weeks ago to work through a recent lecture I gave on “Motivations and Reactions” at the ACFW conference. We should finish either today or tomorrow, depending on how wordy I am today.

First, I want to congratulate one of my loyal blog readers, Mary DeMuth, who has recently launched a mentoring service for writers at Mary has published several novels and has also published several nonfiction books, all with good publishers.

As my loyal blog readers know, many published authors (including me) use freelance editors (like Mary) to help us buff up our novels before sending them to our agents and/or editors. For one thing, it’s a competitive world. For another, you can never view your own work objectively.

In my own case, I don’t need a lot of mentoring; I mainly need a hard-headed person to tell me when the story isn’t working and why. Once I know that, I can figure out how to fix it. A mentor will not only tell you what’s wrong, she’ll give you some guidance on how to fix it.

OK, on to those pesky Motivations and Reactions. If you’re just joining us, you may want to read through the previous 6 lessons that I’ve posted over the past couple of weeks.

In our last lesson, we worked through a snippet of a scene from PATRIOT GAMES by Tom Clancy. The scene had some very minor structural issues, but it worked very well. Today, we’ll look at a perfectly structured snippet from THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown.

Slide 32: Dan Brown: The DaVinci Code, p. 184

Vernet gave a helpless sigh. “I’m afraid every key is electronically paired with a ten-digit account number that functions as a password. Without that number, your key is worthless.”

Ten digits. Sophie reluctantly calculated the cryptographic odds. Over ten billion possible choices. Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code. “Certainly, monsieur, considering the circumstances, you can help us.”

Randy sez: The viewpoint character is Sophie, a cryptologist who works for the French government. She is trying to recover the contents of a safe-deposit box in a bank from Mr. Vernet, the annoying bank official who is playing by the rules. Sophie has the key but not the password. If she can’t guess the password, the key is useless.

The Motivation is therefore the first paragraph, which shows Vernet speaking. The Reaction is the second paragraph, showing Sophie’s internal thoughts.

As I’ve done with our other examples, I’ll color-code this snippet in the next slide so you can see how nicely structured it is. The Motivation is black; the Reaction is red.

Slide 33: Dan Brown: The DaVinci Code, p. 184

Vernet gave a helpless sigh. “I’m afraid every key is electronically paired with a ten-digit account number that functions as a password. Without that number, your key is worthless.”

Ten digits. Sophie reluctantly calculated the cryptographic odds. Over ten billion possible choices. Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code. “Certainly, monsieur, considering the circumstances, you can help us.”

Randy sez: Dan Brown has got the structure perfect here. The Motivation is in one paragraph and is very nicely objective and external to the POV character. The Reaction is in its own paragraph and is subjective and internal to the POV character.

But there is still a problem here. Can you see what it is? Read the snippet above again, remembering that Sophie is a mathematician. Do you see anything slightly off here? And do you see anything that is grotesquely off?

Mull on that for a minute and then look at my comments below.

OK, enough mulling. Here are the problems I see. You’ll see that most of them are minor and one is major.

* “Sophie reluctantly calculated…” Randy sez: This is a little odd. Why would she be reluctant? The calculation is trivial. I could see that she might be disappointed in the result, but it’s strange to think that she might be reluctant, since it takes no work to do the calculation. It’s a minor point, but it just feels funny.

* “the cryptographic odds”. Randy sez: I earned a double major in math and physicss and then went to Berkeley for my Ph.D. in physics, where I took a few more graduate math courses. I’m not a cryptologist, so I can’t say with certainty, but the phrase “cryptographic odds” sounds foreign to my ears. Most mathematicians I know would simply say “the odds” or “the combinatorial factor”. The phrase “cryptographic odds” feels more like a novelist trying to use big words and less like a real mathematician. Again, it’s a minor point, but again, it just feels funny.

* “Over ten billion possible choices.” Randy sez: This is flat out wrong. There are exactly ten billion possible choices. The calculation is trivial. It seems odd for Brown to overstate the facts here, since 10 billion is a big enough number already. Why try to inflate it? But overstatement of facts seems to be a common theme in the book. This is a fairly bad mistake, because someone like Sophie could not possibly get this wrong.

* “Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers, she still would need weeks to break the code.” Randy sez: This would be a completely idiotic thought for a mathematician to think. It is true that computers can be used to crack codes. It is true that parallel processing computers are faster than single-processor machines (all other things being equal). But this is not a code to be broken, and a computer would be of absolutely no help here. There is a password which you have to guess and type in to a terminal. There are 10 billion different options. The only way to guess the password is to GUESS it. You can’t compute it! If you have no reason to guess any particular password, then you have to resort to the brute-force method of typing in each one by hand, and you can’t have a computer do that. But in this particular case, that won’t work either, because the system only allows one attempt and then shuts down. So the entire sentence is a blunder. Sophie could not possibly have thought this sentence.

One paragraph in the point of view of a mathematician. Two minor glitches. One biggish glitch. One monumental blunder. What’s the moral here?

The moral is that if you’re going to put thoughts into the mind of a character with specialized knowledge, then you need to ask somebody with that specialized knowledge to read your work. Don’t just make stuff up. There are a lot of readers out there, and some of them will know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.

Getting your Motivations and Reactions right is not enough! Your goal is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you instead give your reader a Powerful Scornful Experience, then you goofed.

Now let’s move on to our final example. Keep in mind that we have been talking about how to “Show, Don’t Tell” effectively. This example is one of the most famous passages in recent literary history, the opening paragraphs of the Harry Potter epic series.

Slide 34: J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter #1, p. 1

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son named Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

Randy sez: This snippet is all “Telling”. Now the simple question is this: How would you “Show” this passage?

Before I address this question, I’ll give my loyal blog readers a shot at it. Go ahead and post a comment here. I’ll give you my thoughts on it tomorrow.


  1. Pam Halter October 15, 2008 at 5:27 am #

    I think the example with Dan Brown’s writing is a good one. When we use *real* facts, SOMEONE will know if we’re wrong. And we lose credibility.

    I’ll have to think about the Harry Potter paragraphs. It’s tough because I would feel like I’m rewriting JK Rowling … like I have the nerve (or the talent) to do that. HA!!

  2. Mark Goodyear October 15, 2008 at 6:25 am #

    For me the Dursleys always come to life when they start talking. So I’ve always wished she had characterized them from the beginning through those crazy conversations they have.

    On the other hand, being a fan of Jane Austen, I appreciate the way these paragraphs read like a book of manners… It sounds a bit like Pride and Prejudice almost, you know? “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    I know 19th century novels don’t follow the rules of MRUs, but I do love good wit.

    Brown has very little wit.

  3. Carrie Stuart Parks October 15, 2008 at 8:20 am #

    In my humble opinion, to make the Rowling paragraphs into showing, I’d have dialog and action to the scene.

    Mr. Dursley opened the door of number four, Privet Drive.

    The house was silent.

    He smiled and nodded on his beefy neck, making his large moustache bob up and down. Of course. We’re perfectly normal, thank you very much.

    well, um something like that……..

  4. Camille October 15, 2008 at 8:28 am #

    I wouldn’t dream of touching JKR. Like Mark, I’m a fan of Jane and enjoy a little Brit telling, love the quirky tongue in cheek humor.

  5. Kathryn October 15, 2008 at 8:34 am #

    I need to learn to analyze the books I read instead of just reading for enjoyment! Apparently, I miss so much. Always wondered why I never really cared much for Dan Brown’s stuff. As for JK Rowling … um … I really like her stuff LOL.

    The Fix: I like Mark’s suggestion, although that would mean losing all those derogatory descriptions. I think I would make it an interior monologue of the neighbor secretly of the wizarding world. Can’t remember her name atm. It is almost that already.

  6. John Harper October 15, 2008 at 8:56 am #

    I havent read any harry potter, but as I understand it, the dudley’s are a minor player. They are introduced to show how terrible harry is treated and then he is off to magic camp. I don’t think it is worth wasting page space on showing them. You want to show important things, don’t you? Do the Dudleys warrant it?

  7. Mary Hake October 15, 2008 at 10:02 am #

    I haven’t read the HP books, but this intro didn’t feel like telling to me as I read it. It moved rapidly enough and created a picture that I think showing might detract from. Sometimes telling works in appropriate places and purposes, but mustn’t be overdone.

  8. Andra M. October 15, 2008 at 11:51 am #

    To answer John Harper, I don’t think it matters with regard to this lesson if the Dursley’s are important. It’s about whether or not we can turn this into a “Show” segment.

    That being said, I would take Mark’s suggestion. As for the derogatory descriptions, that could be well taken care of by another character who doesn’t care for the Dursley’s. Perhaps Dudley?

    Then again, I’m telling, not showing what I would do. I’ll take a gander at it sometime this evening.

  9. Carrie Neuman October 15, 2008 at 3:55 pm #

    She was at it again as Mr. Dursley strode up the drive. His wife was wrapped around the Italian Cyprus peering in the neighbors’ bedroom window. The usual cacophony drifted across the lawn.

    Another day at the factory without a hot meal to come home to. There would be some excuse or drama and couldn’t they just go out? Never mind that everyone stared and whispered.

    Dudley narrowly missed the neighbor’s cat, slid his bike across the drive, and ran in to the house. The little monster slunk up after him.

    Mr. Dursley felt a headache starting at his temples. His wife’s melancholic nephew always looked like he was sulking. At least Dudley had a healthy exuberance.

    “Harry, straighten up. You look like a malcontent, and you know that aggravates the neighbors.”

  10. Mary DeMuth October 21, 2008 at 6:45 am #

    Thanks, Randy, for the shout out about The Writing Spa!

  11. Tim King October 25, 2008 at 11:25 am #

    Hi, Randy. (It’s about time I commented on one of your blog posts.)

    “Sophie reluctantly calculated…” It depends on what kind of person Sophie is whether she would be reluctant or not. She might be reluctant if she didn’t want to know what the answer is. Because she’s a mathematician, she knows the answer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to think about it.

    Of course, “reluctantly” is telling, not showing. He might have done better with: “Sophie instinctively calculated the odds of guessing the password, 10 million to one, and sighed long and hard.” (Or something like that.)

    “Even if she could bring in DCPJ’s most powerful parallel processing computers…” You’re right that she probably couldn’t use the computer to crack the password. But if her expertise involves cracking passwords or cryptographic keys, she might automatically think of using the computer or of measuring the size of the problem in those terms, even if it’s a preposterous idea.

    Re the J.K. Rowling snippet, I find beginnings like this hard to read, because they bore me and give me a headache. (No joke.) My only recourse is to barrel through and hope that the story gets interesting soon. (Compare the beginning of Tom Sawyer, one of my favorite beginnings.)

    I don’t know what I would do with this particular beginning, because I haven’t read the book yet, and I can’t really tell from this snippet what the story is initially about. But I might chop off the first two paragraphs and start with: “Mr. Dursey feared someone would discover his secret, because [motivation].”


  12. Kim Hansen May 5, 2011 at 1:35 am #

    Hi Randy
    I’m reading your blog with great interest and though I’m from Denmark and all the grammar stuff is a bit different, I find the blog very helpful.
    But I have a question.
    Just for the fun of it, I started to write a novel in First Person POV. But looking into MRU I find it difficult to have a Motivation where I do NOT mention the POV, as the POV is the teller and observer.
    For example, I’d like my POV to open a bottle and sniff. And the smell is overwhelming as it is ammonium hydroxide, it almost makes him faint. (I did that myself once). Can you help with a good MRU-solution?

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