Last week, we analyzed some sample passages written by my loyal blog readers using “Motivation-Reaction Units.” For those of you just joining us, you can learn all about those pesky MRUs in my article on “Writing The Perfect Scene.”
Robert left a question in the comments over the weekend that I think needs answering:
I’ve been following this MRU thing and I’m loving it, and it is also changing my writing, but I have a question:
For the sake of suspense, is is ever right to show the reaction before the motivation?
For instance, in a movie, I can picture the camera showing the face of someone in terror before we know what has made them feel that emotion. Especially on ending a scene.
Randy sez: Compare these two passages, in which Harry is the POV character in both, and he is with his friend Ron:
Harry’s heart thumped madly. Stark raving terror filled his soul. He leaped out of his bed and raced toward the door, desperate to get out of the room, but it was locked. He shook the handle frantically.
“Harry, what’s wrong?” Ron shouted.
Harry wished he were home with the wretched Dursleys, rather than here. This was the scariest thing he’d ever seen.
“Harry, speak up!” Ron grabbed him by the throat. “Tell me what’s wrong!”
Harry gasped for breath. Sheets of sweat rolled down his face.
“Harry, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong this minute, I’m gonna tell J.K. you’re putting your Reaction ahead of your Motivation!” Ron said angrily.
“It was … er … a dream about Lord Voldemort,” Harry said belatedly. “He was making gin out of Ginny.”
Randy sez: In the above monstrously bad passage, the author-reader contract is being massively violated. The reader believes she has a right to know what the POV character is thinking. But here, Harry is holding out on the reader. It takes a threat to appeal to J.K. to get him to fulfill his contract with the reader. The reader HATES this kind of thing.
Ron leaped out of his bed and raced toward the door. He shook the handle frantically. “Locked!” he shouted.
“Ron, what’s wrong?” Harry shouted. He’d never seen Ron this frightened.
Ron looked around wildly, his eyes doing that funny thing he perfected in the second movie, where they get as big as Dobby’s, which IS saying something.
“Ron, speak up!” Harry grabbed him by the throat. “Tell me what’s wrong!”
Ron gasped for breath. Sheets of sweat rolled down his face.
“Ron, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong this minute, I’m gonna tell Hermione you’re a dweeb!” Harry said angrily.
“It was … er … a dream about spiders,” Ron said belatedly. “He was making a web out of Ginny’s hair.”
Randy sez: In the above monstrously bad passage, Harry is the POV character and therefore can’t read Ron’s mind. Therefore, the reader can’t either. The reader feels Harry’s urgency to learn what’s gotten into Ron, but the reader does not feel cheated. Why? Because the author-reader contract stipulates that the reader knows ONLY what’s going in the mind of the POV character, not anyone else.
Remember that in a movie, there is no POV character. There is no director-viewer contract that the viewer will know what’s in the head of any character. In general, the only way to tell the viewer this is using a voiceover, which is generally considered bad form.
In a movie, there are no MRUs. This is a fundamental difference between books and movies. In a movie, there are only what we call “Motivations”–they are shown objectively and externally. There are no “Reactions–nothing that is subjective and internal. In a movie, the viewer can only guess at the interior thoughts and emotions of the characters by what they do and say.
This is the enormous advantage you as a novelist have over a screenwriter–you can put your reader INSIDE the POV character. The screenwriter has some enormous advantages over the novelist–he can use video and audio. But he can’t put you inside a character.
This is why novels will never die–because we can do what the movies can’t. And we do it with MRUs.
Tomorrow, we’ll critique the next passage submitted by my loyal blog readers.