I am about to start writing the chapter on those pesky Motivation-Reaction Units for my WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES book. (For those who’ve never heard of MRUs, you can get up to speed almost instantly in my page on “Writing the Perfect Scene.”) MRUs are, in my opinion, one of the most important concepts you need to learn to write good fiction. If you get them right, then your scenes just flow nicely. If you don’t, then your scenes drive about like that ancient Dodge Colt I used to have.
The main problem I’ve always had with “Motivation Reaction Units” (Dwight Swain’s terminology) is that they sound like something cooked up by a robotics engineer. Robotics is wonderful, but fiction is about people, mostly. Powerful Emotional Experiences and all that.
The two main parts of the “Motivation Reaction Unit” are the “Motivation” and the “Reaction.” And I have huge problems with both of those terms:
1) “Motivation” is a word we already use elsewhere in fiction to describe the inner workings of our characters. Now we are using it here for something which is objective and external to our Point-of-View character. What sort of sense does this make? It just confuses my students. On a bad day, it even confuses me.
2) “Reaction” is a word we ALSO already use elsewhere in fiction to describe one of the primary parts of what Dwight Swain calls a “Sequel” and which I now prefer to call a “Reactive Scene.” So again, we have a word doing double duty and it again confuses people. Even worse, it makes it seem that our POV characters are purely reactive. In fact, our POV characters are as often as not proactive.
So how should we rename things so that we don’t use words that overlap with other contexts and that actually have something to do what’s going on?
Here is my thinking at the moment. According to Dwight Swain, the MRU is a unit with two distinct parts. Let’s call each of these parts a “Beat” which coincides more or less with a word that other people already use for a very small unit of action. Then each MRU has two Beats:
* Dwight Swain calls the first of these Beats the “Motivation,” which is always objective and external to our POV character. So let’s call it the Objective Beat.
* Dwight calls the second of the two Beats the “Reaction,” which is always subjective and internal to our POV character. So let’s call it the Subjective Beat.
Now things are pretty simple, especially in scenes in which you have several characters. In a case like that, it’s common to show several characters doing something before you show the POV character. In Dwight’s language, you have a Motivation that may run for several paragraphs and jump across multiple characters, and then a Reaction that covers just the POV character. In my proposed new language, you’d just have several Objective Beats, followed by one Subjective Beat. This is perfectly OK, but now the language is a bit clearer.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. We’ll have a scene with five characters, Malfoy, Hermione, Ron, Snape, and Harry, with Harry as the POV character. I’ll mark each beat as Objective or Subjective.
Malfoy sneered at Harry. “Think you’re really something, Potter? You’re nothing, and you’ll end up like your Mum!” [Objective Beat.]
Rage pulsed in Harry’s throat and he suddenly found that he couldn’t breathe. He flicked his wand out and jabbed it at Malfoy’s face. [Subjective beat.]
Malfoy’s face turned as white as his hair. [Objective Beat.]
“NO, HARRY!” Hermione screamed. “He’s not worth it!” [Objective Beat.]
Ron stepped up beside Harry and gently wrapped his hand around Harry’s fist. “She’s right, mate,” he said regretfully. “Malfoy’s just a stupid git. Wipe him off your shoes and just walk away.” [Objective Beat.]
Somewhere in the back of Harry’s mind, a high, cold voice laughed. A bolt of pain shot through his scar. He pulled his wand away from Malfoy’s sweating face. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. [Subjective Beat.]
Professor Snape walked around the corner and his sallow face scowled. “Is there some reason for four young students to be indoors on a fine spring day like today?” [Objective Beat.]
OK, I’d like to hear the opinion of my loyal blog readers. What do you think? Does it make sense to use the terms “Objective Beat” and “Subjective Beat”? Or are there better terms? I’m still grappling with these things. If there’s one thing I learned as a physicist, it’s that things are simplest when you choose the right notation and they’re complicated when you choose the wrong one. Likewise, in trying to describe what happens in fiction, things are simplest when you choose the right terminology and they get needlessly complicated when you use ambiguous terms.