Yesterday I launched a new topic–Motivation-Reaction Units, which I learned from Dwight Swain. For those of you new to “MRUs”, you can get a summary of them in my article Writing the Perfect Scene.
A number of my loyal blog readers commented today on MRUs, and I’d love to respond to those, but my instinct tells me to just get on with an example. We can talk theory later. So I stood up just now, turned around, and grabbed a book off my shelf. This one is a legal thriller by my friend Rick Acker, who’s a lawyer in the Bay Area. The title is DEAD MAN’S RULE, and I really enjoyed this book a couple of months ago.
The POV character in the opening scene is Alexei, a Russian criminal in Chicago who’s waiting for his CIA contacts to show up on a deserted bridge late at night. When the car arrives, the rear window is down and Alexei realizes he’s in deep trouble. Let’s pick up from there:
Alexei jumped back from the rail between the sidewalk and the street just as the car reached him.
Randy sez: This is a reaction to seeing the window down. Alexei is a crook who’s spent all his life in the Russian underworld, so this is part reflex, part rational response.
Three shots–probably intended for his head–caught him in the chest and side. There was no sound of gunfire to attract attention, just three shrouded flashes and the soft zip zip zip of bullets leaving a silencer.
Randy sez: This is a motivation. How do we know? Because this is objective and external to Alexei. That’s what “motivation” is in MRU terminology. This should not be confused with what people usually mean by the word “motivation”. In MRU-speak, “motivation” means precisely that part of a scene which is objective and external to the POV character.
Alexei stumbled and fell.
Randy sez: This is a reaction. Alexei doesn’t do this intentionally, of course. It would be foolish to fall in his situation. But he doesn’t have much choice. He’s just been shot three times in the chest. He happens to be wearing a Kevlar vest, which is why he’s not dead. But even so, three bullets carry a lot of momentum, and he’s hurting. Notice that Rick doesn’t TELL us Alexei’s hurting. At this point, the action is fast and furious and telling us about Alexei’s pain would slow things down. There’ll be time for that in a minute.
“Hurry!” a voice urged in Russian from the front seat of the car. A tall, dark-haired man jumped out of the right rear door, still holding a Makarov pistol. He shoved the weapon into his jacket and quickly searched Alexei’s coat pockets.
Randy sez: This is a new motivation. It’s external to our POV character, Alexei. Notice that Rick doesn’t TELL us “Alexei saw…” He just SHOWS us what Alexei saw. This is important. You don’t want to waste words in a novel, and telling the reader that the POV character is seeing something or hearing something 500 times in a novel is a waste of 1000 words. The reader KNOWS the POV character is doing the seeing and hearing. Don’t treat your reader like a dummy.
As he knelt to frisk through Alexei’s pants pockets, Alexei’s hand suddenly grabbed his arm and held it in an iron grip. Alexei’s other hand shot into his jacket and pulled out the Makarov.
Randy sez: The first sentence here is mixed–partly motivation, partly Alexei’s reaction. The second sentence is all reaction. The pace here is quite fast. I would recommend in a situation like this putting a paragraph break between the motivation and the reaction. It makes a cleaner distinction between Alexei and his assailant and adds a little white space to the page, which makes the pace feel that much faster.
Zip! Zip! Two rapid pulls on the trigger.
Randy sez: Nice! This is the rest of the reaction, and it wastes not a single letter.
The would-be assassin, his eyes now vacant, fell heavily to the ground beside Alexei.
Randy sez: Very good! The action is zipping right along. Alexei isn’t out of the woods yet, of course, but he’s just pulled a nice turn-around on his assassins. He still needs to deal with the driver of the car, but he’s now got a gun. He doesn’t know that it’s jammed yet, but he’ll find that out shortly.
You have many options in your writing. When the pace is slow, you can get away with a lot of telling. But in a gunbattle like this, or any kind of action scene, you NEED to write in MRUs. Nothing else will show the action with any kind of realism.