I’ve been thinking about what to blog on next over the weekend and I think it’s time to revisit MRUs. A few of you specifically requested a discussion on this in the latest round of comments. Plus, I’ll be teaching a one-hour workshop on this at the ACFW conference in September, and now is a good time to put together some brand new material on this.
If you don’t know what MRUs are (maybe a weird sort of military meal?) then hie thee to my page on Writing the Perfect Scene and learn the basics. By the way, the page on Writing the Perfect Scene is rapidly growing in popularity (about 900 page views per week) and is now second only to the Snowflake page on this site.
Tomorrow, I’ll pick an example from literature and analyze it in terms of MRUs. Tonight, however, I’ll answer a question Lynda wrote:
The use of MRUs seems logical to me. However, I have been told they are formulaic and not to use them. What’s a newbie to think?
Randy sez: This is a good question, and I hear it quite often. It betrays a confusion between a “formula” and a “pattern.” Let me define those now:
A “formula” defines the way something MUST be done, but gives you little or no freedom to deviate from a certain standard. There is not any particular reason for a formula except that “it’s always been done this way.”
A “pattern” defines the way something CAN be done, but gives you enormous freedom to work within that pattern. There is a good rational reason for a pattern and those who understand that reason know when to ignore the pattern.
Some examples of “formulae” are as follows:
1) Fairy tales often begin with “Once upon a time…” and end “…and they lived happily ever after.” If you use these, you can’t change them by a single letter.
2) Certain “formula romance” novels are defined by exactly when the hero and heroine must meet (often by a certain page of the novel), what sort of difficulties they must have, how the story must end, and even the word-count of the novel. If you deviate from this formula, you may violate your contract.
Some examples of “patterns” are as follows:
1) The Three Act Structure known to all screenwriters. While a movie has three acts, the screenwriter has enormous freedom in what goes into those acts.
2) A limerick has a well-defined structure, with five lines in an A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme, a certain required rhythm, and the requirement that the limerick should be funny. But within those strong constraints, there is almost infinite variety.
3) A car has four wheels located approximately at its four corners. In this case, there are clear reasons for having four wheels–stability and maneuverability. A vehicle with five wheels just doesn’t work. One with three can work, but only if you take special precautions on the stability.
In the world of software engineering (which is where I steal many of my ideas), the idea of “Design Patterns” has been popular for about fifteen years. “Design Patterns” are commonly recurring patterns that an engineer can use to create new structures of information or behavior. Yet there is tremendous freedom within each pattern, and there is a lot of freedom in mixing Design Patterns together.
My opinion is that the MRU (Motivation-Reaction Unit) is a Design Pattern that has fundamental importance to the novelist. It gives you a clear structure that can be understood rationally. It also gives you enormous freedom to innovate within the pattern. I’m sure there are nay-sayers who will tell you that MRUs are a mere “formula” but I say nay to the nay-sayers.
My advice is to master the art of MRUs and then (when you understand why they work) use them or don’t use them as you see fit. It’s your novel. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to write it. But you are cheating yourself if you don’t have every tool in your toolkit.