This past week, I have been in the final throes of bug-fixing on a software product I’m working on. Looks like I’ve beaten the one remaining major bug into submission at last. In my last blog post, I did some rather minor rearrangement of a short section of a scene submitted by Lynda. Before moving on to critique the next submission, I’d like to respond to a few of the comments:
I think two commenters said that this should be broken up into separate paragraphs based on the MRUs. I haven’t read Swain yet (it’s in my Amazon wish list for a Christmas present) but is this a hard and fast rule? Most of what everyone submitted including my own was not so strict. So, is this more of a rule or more of a guideline?
Randy sez: The only hard and fast rule is that there is only one hard and fast rule, namely this one. I don’t know of any rule in writing that can’t be broken somewhere, sometime, somehow.
So all those writing rules you learn in writing conferences or books or even on my blog should be considered (like the Pirate’s Code) as mere “guidelines.” If a segment works, then it works, so don’t mess with it.
There were a couple of issues that I had with Lynda’s submission. First, it felt a little fuzzy. It was just a little out of focus, and I couldn’t quite see why until I analyzed it using those pesky Motivation Reaction Units. One reason that I emphasize MRUs so much is that they are such a powerful tool for figuring out why a segment is out of focus.
You will notice that I violated the rule in the first paragraph of my suggested rewrite for Lynda. The reason is that it just worked better to put the Motivation and the Reaction in the same sentence. So I put them that way.
But there was a second issue that I had with Lynda’s work that I haven’t mentioned yet: The paragraphs seemed to me too long and too uniform. My eye looked at these large blocks of text and complained that this was going to be hard reading.
Luckily, the MRU analysis sugested how to break up those long paragraphs. The new rendition I suggested has some very short paragraphs (where the action is a bit quicker) and some longer paragraphs (where there’s more description). This is what you want–more variety in the paragraph sizes.
That brings us to Adam’s comments:
I was thinking the same thing as Daniel, actually. Although Randy’s version here is definitely better, I think following the MRU paragraph break rules this strictly leaves it with too many paragraphs. The paragraph breaks cease to mean anything.
I admit that breaking paragraphs by MRUs usually does improve a piece, but I don’t think it always works.
Randy sez: I’m going to disagree here (nicely, I hope). The paragraph breaks now actually DO mean something–they mean a switch between a Motivation and a Reaction. In Lynda’s original version, the paragraphing felt a bit haphazard to me. Now it’s much more logical. I purposely combined some of Lynda’s Motivations together into larger blocks (in their own paragraph) and I also combined some of her Reactions into their own blocks (again in their own paragraph). So I did a bit of unshuffling so that there were fewer Motivations and fewer Reactions, but now each was more appropriate to the pacing of the scene.
A word on pacing: When the pace of the scene needs to feel fast, you can create that illusion by using shorter paragraphs. When you want to slow the pace down, you create that illusion by using longer paragraphs. That is the logic behind the paragraphing that I used.
Question. If you have a sentence that reads: A therefore B, does it count as a motivation followed by a reaction? Or should it be divided?
Randy sez: Hmmm, I’m not sure. Can you give us an example?
If the sentence is merely the internal thought processes of the POV character, then I would say that it’s all one Reaction and should all be together. But that’s the only example I can think of right now that fits your question. So I don’t know if some other example might need a different splitting.
In general, a Motivation is objective and external to the POV character; a Reaction is subjective and internal to the POV character.
I have a question. Is it ever okay to start a scene with a reaction? Something sort of like this:
“Ow!” Ava glared and rubbed her arm. “Cole Travis, I know that was you!” She shook her head. Just like Cole to slam you with a dirt clod when you weren’t looking.
Randy sez: Yes, I think this works. I like to always start a scene by referring to the POV character, which means starting with a Reaction. So I’m good with this example you’ve given. It works. That’s the main thing.
OK, that’s enough on Lynda’s piece of writing. in our next blog, we’ll critique the submission by Ivye, which is set in 1453–a fine year, if there ever was one.
For those of my loyal blog readers who celebrate the US Thanksgiving holiday, Happy Thanksgiving! For those of you who don’t celebrate it, we’ll remember you as we stuff our faces with turkey (or some tofu imitation thereof), potatoes and/or yams, cranberries, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and numerous other goodies that we rarely eat.