For the past few weeks, we’ve been analyzing scenes using the framework of Motivation-Reaction Units. (For a review of this tool, see my article Writing the Perfect Scene.)
Today will be the final analysis. We’ll look at a few paragraphs posted by Suzanne. We could, of course, go on forever on this topic, but I think it’s time to be moving on, which we’ll do tomorrow.
Here is Suzanne’s full submission:
Mira Johns took long strides up Chule Vista Blvd., and paused at the crest of the hill, her heart throbbing heavily in her chest, to catch her breath and admire the sprawling white brick campus of Los Robles High School.
Her hands clenched anxiously into fists at her sides. Her new clothes—plaid shorts, frayed sneakers, t-shirt, and a pack slung across her back—felt stiff and foreign, as if she were in a costume. The sudden blast of a horn from behind startled her.
She jumped and turned to see a shiny, red Neon zip past her into the school parking lot. A boy in the backseat was poking his body half-way out an open window, and yelled a string of indecipherable words that floated away with the wind.
Her fingers self-consciously tugged at the hem of her t-shirt while she watched the car pull into an empty parking space. She pushed back the fear that they had been able to see through her that easily. While painfully aware of the fact that she was no ordinary student, she reminded herself that she wasn’t all that different either. Quite literally from a different world, she only had to do one thing to succeed: blend in.
She squared her shoulders and stepped forward, moving undeterred across the street and into the busy parking lot, focused on the building directly below the looming marquee that read: Home of the Trojans. Welcome New Students.
Randy sez: This reads pretty well. The question is whether we can make it read better. Can those pesky MRUs make a difference? Let’s take a shot and see what happens.
The first paragraph is mostly one long Reaction (by which we mean it focuses on the POV character.) The end of the paragraph has a Motivation in it which is mixed up with a new Reaction. I would propose to break this longish paragraph into several shorter ones that are either pure Motivation or pure Reaction. Here’s my suggestion:
Mira Johns took long strides up Chule Vista Blvd., and paused at the crest of the hill to catch her breath. Her heart throbbed heavily in her chest.
Beneath her, the white brick campus of Los Robles High School lay sprawled out.
Mira’s hands clenched anxiously into fists at her sides. Her new clothes—plaid shorts, frayed sneakers, t-shirt, and a pack slung across her back—felt stiff and foreign, as if she were in a costume.
A horn blasted directly behind her.
Randy sez: The first paragraph is Reaction, the second is Motivation, the third is Reaction, and the fourth is Motivation. Note that in the last sentence, I have eliminated the word “sudden” because it adds words and makes the horn blast LESS sudden (by making the sentence take longer to read.) Also, I have removed the statement that the horn startled her. The reason is that saying it startled her is “telling.” Remove that, and now it startles the reader.
For the next paragraph, I’d suggest breaking it up as follows:
“Oh!” Mira’s heart double-thumped in her chest. She turned to look.
A shiny, red Neon zipped past her into the school parking lot. A boy in the backseat was poking his body half-way out an open window. He yelled a string of indecipherable words that floated away with the wind. The car pulled into an empty parking space.
Randy sez: The Reaction in the first sentence is now clearly separated from the next Motivation–the boy in the car. The scene now has a somewhat quicker pace because we are not presenting it as if it’s all happening at the same time.
I’ve pulled part of the next paragraph forward to join up with the Motivation above. The rest of the paragraph now makes a nicely coherent Reaction:
Mira’s fingers self-consciously tugged at the hem of her t-shirt. She pushed back the fear that they had been able to see through her that easily. While painfully aware of the fact that she was no ordinary student, she reminded herself that she wasn’t all that different either. Quite literally from a different world, she only had to do one thing to succeed: blend in.
Randy sez: The reason I pulled out the bit about the car from this paragraph is because it had nothing to do with Mira. What remains is all about Mira–it’s all a Reaction.
Now let’s look at Suzanne’s last paragraph, which I again have broken up into a Reaction (that continues the previous paragraph) and a Motivation:
Mira squared her shoulders and stepped forward, moving undeterred across the street and into the busy parking lot.
Directly ahead of her a marquee loomed: Home of the Trojans. Welcome New Students.
Randy sez: Again, I’ve disentangled the parts that were about Mira from the parts that are about the school.
Now you be the judge: Have I disimproved Suzanne’s work or improved it?
Tomorrow, we’ll start on a new topic. I’ll figure out what it is between now and then.
Thanks Randy! What a nice way to start the day. Just when I think I think I understand these MRUs, I see something new and think, “oh, NOW I get it,”…until the next time and I say the same thing again. I think it’s been the one paragraph that has nothing to do with the POV character, then one that is all about her that has thrown me. I thought most of your changes were obvious improvements. However, I started to mentally argue with the last change – splitting the walking across the parking lot and the marguee overhead into two paragraphs – because Mira is going to walk through a series of steps focused on nothing but her goal of getting to her first class, until she runs into an obstacle and stops to study the students for the first time. So I was thinking I’d argue that taking out the phrase “focused on” detracts from showing how goal oriented she is. But then it dawned on me that the next paragraph should say something like “Mira ignored the throng of students and pulled open the office door, focusing on nothing but getting her schedule…” By George I think I’m getting it! At least I hope so, since this is the last one!
Nice to see you at ACFW this week.
I’ve noticed that when you break up work into R’s and M’s you often use one-sentence paragraphs. I was taught that a paragraph develops a thought and that a one-sentence paragraph isn’t grammatically valid. (I guess I taught grammar too long!) Other than adding more white space to the page, are there further reasons for one-sentecne paragraphs? (I don’t mean to be a smart Aleck.)
I often feel patted on the head when paragraphs are very short segments — like the author is thinking,”My readers aren’t intelligent enough to ‘get it’ unless I break it up for them.” On the other hand, I do feel daunted by a full page filled with one paragraph.
Thanks for explaining the MRU concept to us. I picked up Swain’s book, and I’m in the process of reading it. Frankly, his explanation isn’t as clear as yours.
Sylvia… aha! Nice to meet you in person!
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word disimproved, ever. Wow.
I’d say you improved it; the break-down is more clear. I’d have to read it in context at a run to see if I think it flows more smoothly. Does breaking these up into shorter paragraphs generally read smoother?
Like Sylvia said, I often wonder about making so many short paragraphs in an effort to keep the Ms and Rs clean. And I still get hung up once in a while on paragraphs in my novel which have blend of Ms, Rs, and things I’m not quite sure how to label but they feel like they need to stay together. But for the most part, I think I’m getting it.
This topic has been incredibly helpful, Randy. Thanks loads.
Andra M. says
This has been an informative topic. As I edit my manuscript I’m sure I’ll refer back to this series again and again – I’m old and tend to forget things.
To jump in on the secondary subject about short paragraphs, they come in handy during high action scenes. It shows how characters think when they need to accomplish something fast. There’s no time to waste on details and words.
As with anything, though, short paragraphs can be overused.
Andra M. says
Darn it, hit Submit too soon!
I wanted to add that I tend to use short paragraphs. I have to force myself to slow down and allow the characters – and my readers – time to catch their breath.