Last week I taught a one-hour workshop on those pesky “Motivation-Reaction Units” at the ACFW conference in Minneapolis.
Today, I’d like to begin a multi-day series in which I go through my lecture notes for those of you who weren’t at the conference. This will allow me to present the last few slides of my talk, which was ingloriously cut off when I ran out of time. My talk had 35 slides. The first two were just a title page and copyright notice, both far too boring to show here.
Slide 3: Preview
Before I define what “Motivation-Reaction Units” are, let me give an overview of the workshop. My talk has four main parts:
- Your Primary Goal In Writing Fiction
- Dialogue Plus Action
- Real-World Examples
Slide 4: “Show, Don’t Tell”
The most infuriating advice an editor can give you is “Show, Don’t Tell.” Why? Because they are TELLING you to “Show, Don’t Tell,” rather than “SHOWING” you how to “Show, Don’t Tell.”
The second most infuriating advice is to “Leave out the parts that people don’t read.” Yeah, great. Which parts are those?
In this workshop, I’m going to SHOW you how to “Show, Don’t Tell.” I’m also going to show you which parts people don’t read. It’ll then be up to you whether to leave them out or not. But at least you’ll know what they are.
Slide 5: Your Primary Goal As A Novelist
I believe that your primary goal as a novelist is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you do this, then you can do anything else and your reader will follow. You can be teachy and you can be preachy and nobody will complain. If you fail to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then nothing else you do will be right. Ted Dekker and Karen Kingsbury and J.K. Rowling and Stephen King give their readers a Powerful Emotional Experience. You should too.
Slide 6: When To Show, When To Tell
If you have a scene that gives the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then all is well. Show this scene. If you have a scene that does not give the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then you are a vile, scurvy dog and your scene ought not to live. Kill it and tell it somewhere, as fast and as efficiently as possible, but only if it needs to be told. Otherwise, consign it to the flames of Perdition.
Slide 7: Dialogue and Action
There are two main kinds of things you need to be able to show well. You can mix and match these, or you can show them separately. But you must master these.
Slide 8: A Word About Structure
All literary forms have structure. Here are three common structures:
- Haiku: 3 lines; a word picture in 5-7-5 syllables, no rhyme, no rhythm
- Limerick: 5 lines, must be funny, AABBA rhyme scheme, typically 8-8-5-5-8 syllables in anapestic rhythm
- Motivation-Reaction Unit: outside/inside
The haiku and limerick structures really don’t need any explanation. You already know these structures and can easily recognize them. The Motivation-Reaction Unit actually has a simpler structure than either of these: what I call “outside/inside”. We’ll discuss in enormous detail what this means later in the lecture.
Slide 9: Is This A Haiku?
Haiku doesn’t rhyme
At least, not most of the time.
It’s five, seven, five.
We took a vote in the class to determine whether the above is a haiku. It has 3 lines. The lines have 5 syllables, then 7, then 5. So it nominally has the structure to be a haiku. However, this is not a word-picture. It doesn’t fulfill the role a haiku is suppose to have. So it’s not a “real” haiku.
Slide 10: Is This A Limerick?
There once was a poet named Ran
Whose poetry wouldn’t quite scan.
He said, “I try hard…
But I guess I’m no Bard…
Because I always have to cram as many words in the last line as I possibly can!”
We took a vote in the class to decide if this is a limerick. It is clearly close: it has 5 lines, with the right rhyme scheme (AABBA), the right meter (anapestic), and almost the right number of syllables in each line. But the last line has way too many syllables. Is it a limerick? The class decided that it is–because it’s funny, which is the reason a limerick exists. The point of this limerick is that it doesn’t scan. It’s self-referential. This is definitely a limerick.
Slide 11: Structure Is Not Enough!
The “haiku” I wrote has the right structure, but it is not a word picture–it fails to meet the objective.
The “limerick” I adapted doesn’t quite have the right structure, but it’s funny–it meets the objective.
Moral: If you have a choice between getting your MRU structure right and giving your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, do the right thing.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with an analysis of two dialogues in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, by Charles Dickens. We’ll show how structuring your dialogue can make it far more readable and help create that Powerful Emotional Experience.
See ya then!