I got an interesting email today from one of my loyal readers asking about those pesky MRUs. If you don’t know what an MRU is, you can read all about them in my article on Writing the Perfect Scene. Or you can get into them in great depth in my Fiction 101 and Fiction 201 courses.
The question (thanks to Jason Epperson for this question, which I have sharpened up slightly) is the following: “Is it really true that every single scene you write should be composed of MRUs and nothing but MRUs?”
This question really boils down to this one: “Is it really true that you should always show and never tell?”
Jason pointed out an example in my own novel OXYGEN which was not written in MRUs. (I don’t want to quote it here because it’s near the end of the book and would be a spoiler for some people.) He apologized for pointing it out, because he didn’t want to be rude, but he did want to understand this thing. It didn’t bother me to see this example of my apparent hypocrisy, because my coauthor, John Olson, actually wrote the paragraph in question. 🙂
But I didn’t change John’s paragraph, because . . . well, I won’t tell you just yet why I didn’t change it.
There is more here than meets the eye. I have some tentative opinions on the “showing versus telling” question, but first I want to hear from you all, because the collective wisdom of you folks is pretty high, and I’d like to hear what you think before I go pontificating. What do you think? How would you answer Jason’s question?
The best answer (in my sole judgment, by midnight Pacific time on Wednesday) will win a free critique by me of a one-page sample of your work in progress. (The value of this prize is somewhere between 12 cents and $7 billion.)
So tell me what you think! The clock is ticking . . .
Christina Berry says
I’ll write up a comment about MRUs as soon as I finish taking all the punctuation out of my WIP and shrinking the font size to fit as much material as possible onto that one page.
Really, I remember having an email discussion with you about this very subject. Now, if I could only remember the conclusion of the conversation….
Hehe! That title threw me off a bit. Thought this was about most-recently-used (MRU) lists. Still in work so the brain’s not working too well.
As for show don’t tell… sometimes it can be difficult for me to avoid telling, but I think a person should always strive to show things instead. I’m thinking here, not about writing, but about movies. Particularly those by Kurosawa, a master of showing and not telling. Little or no exposition, telling the story through the looks on people’s faces, the tones of voice, body language etc. Some of the best movies ever made did a lot less telling, and a lot more showing, than you might notice at first.
When writing I actually concentrate more on show don’t tell than avoiding passive sentences and general rubbishness! They’re superficial issues and can be dealt with relatively easily, so I find it more constructive (for me) to concentrate on avoiding the ‘telling’.
The other reason I personally think it’s very important is because by ‘showing’ you’re giving the reader a lot more. It becomes a more interactive experience. They have to use their imagination, intuition, a lot more than if you just tell them everything. Whenever I have to do that while reading a book, it’s always a much more enjoyable experience.
Although I may have missed the point somewhere…
Rachel Brown says
What a cool prize, Randy. Don’t I wish I had something intelligent to say!
In my limited efforts in using MRU’s, I’ve discovered that they really keep the pace up, and – dare I say it – make the EMOTIONAL reaction more POWERFUL because it follows so closely after the event.
As to why a good writer mightn’t use them at a particular point, one reason that comes to mind is to break the pace. This would allow the reader time to breathe and recover, OR to hype up the tension by postponing the resolution of a nail biting problem.
As to why I mightn’t use them at a particular point … probably just laziness.
When I started writing, I hadn’t a clue
About that venerable and pesky MRU
I wrote a scene; it dragged, it bit
I didn’t like it. My characters had fits
So then I bought Randy’s Holiest Grail
By Dwight B. Swain; it came in the mail
My prose did soareth on MRU wings
Motivation and reaction, my scenes they did sing
The book before Swain lies dormant and whiny
But my second was published; it’s really quite shiny
Sometimes I do tell, as the story dictates
With MRU DNA, I know when to deviate
There’s power in that as I write novels galore
For publishing houses who’ve opened the door
for books three, four, five and six
I thank you, Mr. Swain, for your bag of tricks.
Sorry, bad poetry, Randy, but I thought it might be the motivation for you to react favorably!
Shirl Tourtillott says
I don’t think you should always show, rather than tell. Sometimes it’s preferable to tell, as when you are telling an action that is so commonplace, it would bore the reader if you showed it. For example, it’s better to tell, “They had dinner,” instead of showing, “They sat down to eat. Marsha picked up her fork. She chewed the morsel of chicken breast.
‘How’s your food?’ asked John.” Blah, blah, blah. Narration can come in handy.
When I first encountered the idea of MRUs in Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, I latched onto it with great enthusiasm. Here was the answer to that inevitable question every writer faces, “What comes next?” Because if you can think up a way to describe a motivational action, you just have to ask yourself how your character will react to it. Wash, rinse, repeat–before you know it you have a scene!
Writing fiction is not dogma. There have since come many times where plunking down action and reaction just didn’t work for what I was trying to accomplish. The reason? Who knows? It didn’t feel right. Choices such as when to tell instead of show sometimes arise out of the art of writing instead of craft. Sometimes you have to trust in your instincts. Sometimes you break a writing rule because something inside you says you must for the sake of the whole work.
The rules of craft will take you a long way toward writing a novel–but they won’t take you all the way. There are several miles during the journey where you must travel in the dark and on faith alone.
There’s gotta be a balanced arrangement of all parts, a rhythm that comes from arranging in just the right manner. Show, tell, Show, Tell, Show, Tell.
Scene, Sequel, Scene, Sequel.
Action, Reaction, Action, Reaction.
Lord, help me get a grip on MRUs, RUMs, URMs and UMRs.
I think the answer to “Do I always use MRUs?” is closely related to the answer to “Why do you write fiction?”
If you are writing to communicate emotion so that others will really have the experience, I think you should always start with the MRU. I think there could be reasons why you might want to change it.
* Pacing. You could use “telling” to skip some otherwise necessary “showing” and get back to the action. Or you could use it to slam the brakes on a rapid-fire scene.
* Confusion. If you have done everything one way (structure-wise) in the work, I’d imagine doing differently would cause some subconscious dissonance, Like a wrong note at the symphony. You could want that.
* Censorship. OK, that’s not really the right word. But there are some powerful emotions you may not want the reader to experience. Maybe you just don’t want them to experience it yet, or maybe not at all.
There are other reasons, but for freshmen like me, I think the only good reason would be the first reason I put, to quickly move past a more boring part. It’s just better for beginners to stick with the established formula as much as possible. Using different techniques than MRUs to achieve your emotional “goal” in the scene would be something the writing black-belts do…
Valerie Fentress says
I think that every novel had a pace of its own. True it needs to keep the reader tuned in page after page. But there comes times where the ‘show don’t tell’ philosophy hinders the story.
You have to stay true to the rhythm and tone of your WIP 🙂
Susan Flemming says
Show, don’t tell, like any other writing “rule,” should be considered as a guideline rather than a law that must be adhered to at all costs.
James Scott Bell explains it this way in his book Plot & Structure:
“Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to get on to the meaty part of the scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. But if you try do it contantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t. And your readers will get exhausted.”
By choosing when to show and when to tell, the writer is able to create varying levels in intensity within a scene, as well as, scene to scene, thus creating a natural ebb and flow that pulls a reader along.
It’s about timing and balance. More than simply creating a single emotional experience for the reader, it’s about creating a series of emotional experiences where there’s the building and releasing of tension and then building again. As the tension builds, the writing needs to become more vivid; more show less tell. Then by switching or transitioning to telling, the writer eases back on the tension, slows the action before once again taking the reader to a higher level.
Lacy J Williams says
Remember in kindergarten/grade school when you “Show & Tell” time? Would it have been as fun if it was just “Show” Time?
Who really cares if you get to SEE the bunny rabbit or pet snake or favorite ball cap, etc., if you don’t know the story behind it? Why is it important to the person showing it, and why should it be important to you?
In the same way, you’d be bored if little Johnny got up at the front of the class and told you all about his trip to see the World Series, if he didn’t bring in the baseball he caught in the stands or the autographed mitt he waited 3 hours in line to have signed.
YOU NEED BOTH.
Sometimes, the reader needs a little information that is better told than shown. Sometimes, they simply need to be shown. Where you need to tell vs. show depends on the flow of the novel and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Laura Ware says
Well, I know the military uses them quite often for their soldiers. I’ve tried them, and they’re okay if you’re desperate, I guess…
Oh, wait. You said MRU’s, not MRE’s!
Though I don’t understand what an MRU is (I’m a relative newbie here) I understand show vs. tell.
I think beginning writers tend to tell a lot – telling is easy. So they’re told to show, not tell, because they tell too much.
Like anything else, you can go overboard. But I would say that good writers show a lot, but also tell some.
Carrie Stuart Parks says
I read the article by Randy Ingemanson, slipping back to the related information on MRU’s.
I gasped. My heart pounded like Japanese taiko drums.
The manuscript pages flew through the air as I found my last scene.
“Ohmigosh,” I said, staring at the words. “What complete garbage.”
My husband came into the room. He saw my face and it made him angry. He wanted to help me, but he didn’t know anything about writing. He was totally helpless so he left the room again.
Sally Bradley says
Sometimes telling is necessary. I’m thinking of instances where maybe characters need to move from one locale to the other but nothing of importance to the plot happens during that travel time.
So we don’t show them opening the car door, sliding into the car seat, buckling themselves in, and conversing for the ten minute drive. Instead we tell the readers they drove to wherever and pick up the showing once they arrive at where the next essential scene to the story will take place.
Otherwise, yes, I think you show the story.
Colleen Shine says
My response is probably too simplistic, but I hold that if we always show and never tell, we would wear out our readers. We need to give them a chance to think through what is going on, catch their, and regroup. Otherwise, we could lose them completely. And what we want is for them to stick with us till the end.
Colleen Shine says
My response is probably too simplistic, but I hold that if we always show and never tell, we would wear out our readers. We need to give them a chance to think through what is going on, catch their breath, and regroup. Otherwise, we could lose them completely. And what we want is for them to stick with us till the end.
Okay, truth is I’m a newbie who went to a writing workshop last weekend. I’ve also gone through Writing 101 for the first, but not the last, time.
Part of the workshop (it was given by a literary intersticial writer, Holly Phillips) was on showing character through setting. I was intrigued by the idea of a descriptive passage that shows your character in a setting that is a metaphor for the conflict of the main plot. It doesn’t move the plot forward, but it adds depth.
I think you need to take the occasional break from the action, and this seems like a rewarding way.
My two cents
Yes, you should always use MRUs, despite the pain, in all scenes. Tying the scenes together is where you don’t use MRUs. Here, short telling bits are usually used to sew two scenes into sequence that would otherwise jar the reader out of the story.
Karla Akins says
How would I know? That’s why I subscribe to your teachings! 🙂 As a reader, I prefer dialogue over description, so I suppose it depends on HOW you are crafting your MRU.
Garrett Winn says
My 9th Grade English teacher (her last name was Stonebreaker – and she was scary 😉 ), screamed at us all the time – Show, Don’t Tell!
I never really knew what she meant. Until I read a great book on writing just last year by Orson Scott Card (Character and Viewpoint).
I don’t have the book with me right now, so I’m going from memory and from some info on his website: the “show don’t tell” advice is only applicable in a *few* situations. Most times and for most things, you tell and don’t show!
Tell is for broad sweeps and giving information. Also, motivation is “unshowable” – it must be told.
Show is for giving specifics and to make the reader care and feel.
Andra M. says
No prize winning comment here, because all I will do is echo what most have said before me: Telling sometimes moves the story along quicker, but can also give the reader a moment to sit and relax a bit.
Too much of one thing, showing or telling, will wear a reader out.
mary andrews says
My initial response is that sometimes u can show the passage of time by telling, so I guess that I would say that since telling can become a method of showing, YES. You should always show.
Charlotte Babb says
There are times when you need to narrate, that is tell what is going on, when you need to speed things up. To keep from doing an info dump, you have one of the characters narrate–even in third person you can give how that character sees the events.
Then you slow down and show each action, each sentence bit by bit, making each item have more impact and more meaning by simply having more space and more sensory input.
That having been said, there are better and worse ways to tell….
We’re not just talking about method when we talk about writing. MRU is a method that helps us write, helps us structure. Some scenes, and probably the one at the end of Oxygen are more about art than method. Not about pretty prose, but about conveying something outside the rules that still gets the point across and contributes to the story. 🙂
Joleena Thomas says
Randy, this gives me more to think about. I’ve always considered the microscopic and the macroscopic, but here we are getting into a different kind of deconstruction: talking about chunks of flowing (hopefully flowing)units consisting of Goal, Conflict, Disaster followed by Reaction, Dilemma, Decision…lather, rinse repeat.
It makes a lot of sense, and it’s probably a good thing to keep in mind and use as part of the arsenal with all of the other crafty techniques: especially, as you say, not necessarily in the early stages of writing but in the refining process–after it’s sat awhile and cooled off on the shelf.
Does it exist as a hard and fast rule? Probably not.
I’m thinking about the story “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom. Now I’m wondering if that particular type of story uses that kind of method. Guess I have to go and take out the microscope.
I think there is a time and place for everything. For example: I’ve been thinking long and hard about a scene involving a race horse (to me a very special race horse)and I don’t know how to handle it.
The race is to be fast, obviously. I literally sat down and recorded (word-for-word–long-hand)how the race was announced from a Youtube video because I wanted to “feel” it as I did when I used to go to the races at Vancouver’s Ex. Park. Let me tell you…it’s a slow process stop, rewind, play…stop, rewind…you know.
This absolutely brilliant short story(How’s that for getting EMO?)is still sitting on the shelf.
This horse deserves only the very best commentary. I refuse to write a scene that doesn’t do him justice. I’ve even considered writing it from the horse’s point of view.
Boy! But anyways, what I’m trying to say here is that I think that if I were in long descriptive mode only showing throughout the race without the announcer’s commentary, his pitch–the very early sound of “They’re off! I’d have a very poor quality scene and This isn’t the movies…no video slow motion action for effect.
So, yeah. Every rule can be broken if you know when you’re breaking it and how to do it right.
Like everything else in writing, balance is the key. Both showing and telling have their uses and their place.
Knowing when and how to use either is another step along the journey from beginner to craftsman.
Darn. Missed the deadline. I would’ve posted something like:: There are some things that simply must be told for the sake of both the reader’s and writer’s sanity. Always write with both you and your audience’s sanity in mind. (get it? in mind?)