We’ve been discussing those pesky Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) lately and on Monday I opened up the blog for submissions of short passages from your works in progress. Tuesday was my day to write my e-zine, so today I’m picking up where we left off on Monday.
Camille was the first to post an entry. I’ll insert comments after each Motivation and each Reaction:
Maggie just stood there in the cottage doorway chewing her lip, empty-handed this time except for the old scarred shovel handle she used as a walking stick.
Randy sez: This is a Motivation, since the POV character in this scene is Iain. Camille has shown us Maggie very well. We can see her standing there, not doing much (except chewing her lip). But that’s enough.
Iain frowned. “What do you mean she’s gone? Who’s gone?”
Randy sez: This is a Reaction. Iain is the POV character. A Reaction can have three parts, a Feeling, a Reflexive action, and a Rational action, but it doesn’t have to have them all. In this case, Iain’s Reaction has only the Rational action, in two parts. First he frowns. Then he speaks. A Reaction like this is just fine for dialogue.
She stomped her foot. “Och! Are ye deaf now, laddie? The lass. The one that writes ye letters.”
Randy sez: This is a new Motivation. We can see that stomping foot, can’t we? We can hear the irritation in her voice. (Is Maggie jealous of the lass?–we wonder. If she is, we suspect Iain doesn’t realize it, but we don’t know, so we read on.)
She knows about the letters . . . ?
The burst of adrenaline that shot through his veins sent his voice booming. “What do you mean ‘gone’? Since when?” He pushed past Maggie and rushed down the walk, trying to ignore the uneasy tingle creeping up his spine.
Randy sez: The first two paragraphs are italicised because they are direct thoughts inside Iain’s head. This sequence had me a little confused when I read it the first time through. When I sat down to analyze it, I realized why. We have three paragraphs here, all three of which are part of Iain’s Reaction. But they are out of sequence. A burst of adrenaline is a BURST. It’s a Feeling, and Feelings happen quicker than any Rational thought.
So I would recommend showing the reader that burst of adrenaline first. Then show the Rational thought. Then show Iain speaking. It’ll feel more natural to the reader. Something like this:
A burst of adrenaline shot through Iain’s veins. Maggie knew about the letters. And . . . Emily was gone. “What do you mean, ‘gone?'” His voice boomed out louder than he’d intended. “Since when?” He pushed past Maggie and rushed down the walk, trying to ignore the uneasy tingle creeping up his spine.
“Grace woke up wanting to see her, but the lass wasnae there,” Maggie said from behind him. “We looked everywhere. We waited and waited, but she’s still not come round.”
Randy sez: This is a third Motivation, and it does its job nicely.
Rain smacked his face as he sprinted to the middle of the drive where he could get a better glimpse of the house. The old truck was there, next to the house in the same spot where Emily had parked it after church. He turned to Maggie, who had followed him out and stood without flinching at the steady rain matting down her stiff, white hair, her hands clutched together into a tight, knobby clump.
Randy sez: This is a third Reaction. I am wary of the word “as” because it often is used to put an Effect before a Cause. In the real world, Causes come first, then effects. Bombs explode, then people feel the blast.
If you think about what’s happening here, you’ll see that the Effect is coming before the Cause here. Iain is sprinting–that’s the Cause. Rain is smacking his face–that’s the Effect. You’ll also notice if you look hard that there is a Reaction, a Motivation, and a Reaction in this paragraph. Breaking them into separate paragraphs will pick up the pace a little, by adding white space to the page. I’d suggest something like this:
Iain sprinted toward the middle of the drive, ignoring the rain smacking his face.
The old truck was still there, next to the house in the same spot where Emily had parked it after church.
He turned to Maggie, who had followed him out and stood without flinching at the steady rain matting down her stiff, white hair, her hands clutched together into a tight, knobby clump.
Camille’s original piece was already pretty darn good. I’ve not messed with it much–just rearranged things a little to get things in a slightly better order. Why? To give the reader the best reading experience possible–so that at every point, the reader is there, inside the skin of the POV character, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, and most importantly, feeling what he feels.
Your goal as a novelist is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. That’s all. Nothing more. But never, ever, ever anything less.