This past week, I have been in the final throes of bug-fixing on a software product I’m working on. Looks like I’ve beaten the one remaining major bug into submission at last. In my last blog post, I did some rather minor rearrangement of a short section of a scene submitted by Lynda. Before moving on to critique the next submission, I’d like to respond to a few of the comments:
I think two commenters said that this should be broken up into separate paragraphs based on the MRUs. I haven’t read Swain yet (it’s in my Amazon wish list for a Christmas present) but is this a hard and fast rule? Most of what everyone submitted including my own was not so strict. So, is this more of a rule or more of a guideline?
Randy sez: The only hard and fast rule is that there is only one hard and fast rule, namely this one. 🙂 I don’t know of any rule in writing that can’t be broken somewhere, sometime, somehow.
So all those writing rules you learn in writing conferences or books or even on my blog should be considered (like the Pirate’s Code) as mere “guidelines.” If a segment works, then it works, so don’t mess with it.
There were a couple of issues that I had with Lynda’s submission. First, it felt a little fuzzy. It was just a little out of focus, and I couldn’t quite see why until I analyzed it using those pesky Motivation Reaction Units. One reason that I emphasize MRUs so much is that they are such a powerful tool for figuring out why a segment is out of focus.
You will notice that I violated the rule in the first paragraph of my suggested rewrite for Lynda. The reason is that it just worked better to put the Motivation and the Reaction in the same sentence. So I put them that way.
But there was a second issue that I had with Lynda’s work that I haven’t mentioned yet: The paragraphs seemed to me too long and too uniform. My eye looked at these large blocks of text and complained that this was going to be hard reading.
Luckily, the MRU analysis sugested how to break up those long paragraphs. The new rendition I suggested has some very short paragraphs (where the action is a bit quicker) and some longer paragraphs (where there’s more description). This is what you want–more variety in the paragraph sizes.
That brings us to Adam’s comments:
I was thinking the same thing as Daniel, actually. Although Randy’s version here is definitely better, I think following the MRU paragraph break rules this strictly leaves it with too many paragraphs. The paragraph breaks cease to mean anything.
I admit that breaking paragraphs by MRUs usually does improve a piece, but I don’t think it always works.
Randy sez: I’m going to disagree here (nicely, I hope). The paragraph breaks now actually DO mean something–they mean a switch between a Motivation and a Reaction. In Lynda’s original version, the paragraphing felt a bit haphazard to me. Now it’s much more logical. I purposely combined some of Lynda’s Motivations together into larger blocks (in their own paragraph) and I also combined some of her Reactions into their own blocks (again in their own paragraph). So I did a bit of unshuffling so that there were fewer Motivations and fewer Reactions, but now each was more appropriate to the pacing of the scene.
A word on pacing: When the pace of the scene needs to feel fast, you can create that illusion by using shorter paragraphs. When you want to slow the pace down, you create that illusion by using longer paragraphs. That is the logic behind the paragraphing that I used.
Question. If you have a sentence that reads: A therefore B, does it count as a motivation followed by a reaction? Or should it be divided?
Randy sez: Hmmm, I’m not sure. Can you give us an example?
If the sentence is merely the internal thought processes of the POV character, then I would say that it’s all one Reaction and should all be together. But that’s the only example I can think of right now that fits your question. So I don’t know if some other example might need a different splitting.
In general, a Motivation is objective and external to the POV character; a Reaction is subjective and internal to the POV character.
I have a question. Is it ever okay to start a scene with a reaction? Something sort of like this:
“Ow!” Ava glared and rubbed her arm. “Cole Travis, I know that was you!” She shook her head. Just like Cole to slam you with a dirt clod when you weren’t looking.
Randy sez: Yes, I think this works. I like to always start a scene by referring to the POV character, which means starting with a Reaction. So I’m good with this example you’ve given. It works. That’s the main thing.
OK, that’s enough on Lynda’s piece of writing. in our next blog, we’ll critique the submission by Ivye, which is set in 1453–a fine year, if there ever was one.
For those of my loyal blog readers who celebrate the US Thanksgiving holiday, Happy Thanksgiving! For those of you who don’t celebrate it, we’ll remember you as we stuff our faces with turkey (or some tofu imitation thereof), potatoes and/or yams, cranberries, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and numerous other goodies that we rarely eat.
Adam Heine says
Thanks for the response, Randy. I definitely should’ve clarified what I meant, so apologies there. I don’t think we disagree very much – probably more on style than anything. The tweaked versions you have been presenting definitely improve the submissions in ways I wouldn’t have thought of before. So thank you.
So let me be more specific about my previous comment. One problem I had early on was the three one-sentence paragraphs near the beginning:
One-sentence paragraphs can be very dramatic when used sparingly, but when used too often they lose their impact and can even be annoying. The above, I think, is too often. Here’s an (admittedly melodramatic) example of how one-sentence paragraphs might be effective:
Except for Alex entering, the whole thing is motivation, but the one-sentence paragraph adds emphasis and drama to Alex’ discovery.
Back to the critiqued text, with the three paragraphs that begin with “It would storm soon,” I think they would read better like this (or something like it):
Here I’m mixing motivations and reactions, I know, but I’m doing so in an attempt to make the text feel more dramatic and less stilted. I separated the first two sentences because, alone, they have added tension – the paragraph ends with “He had to find shelter,” leaving the reader to wonder if he would find it. When that sentence is in the middle of a paragraph the tension is lessened. The critiqued paragraph that said, “No outcrops. No hollow logs. A Giant Kapok towered above adjacent trees,” felt empty to me. Nothing happens, it’s just what he sees. It makes more sense to me to attach it to his action of scanning the area. And last, I orphaned that last sentence to give it more emphasis and get us a little closer to the character.
These are just my ideas, and I don’t know if they are better – mostly they just feel more right to me. So let me finish with the huge disclaimer that Randy is published, and I am not, so if in doubt please do what Randy says first! 🙂
Hannah L. says
Wonderful! Thank you so much, Mr. Ingermanson, for answering my question.
Carrie Stuart Parks says
Have a warm and blessed Thanksgiving, Randy, with all your family.
Sheila Deeth says
Happy Thanksgiving Randy. And your articles and answers are really helpful. Really appreciated.
Marcus Goodyear says
I hope you had a very Happy Thanksgiving, Randy. I appreciate what you do here.
I hope you and everyone else had a very happy Thanksgiving.
Re my question: If a sentence reads A therefore B, does it count as a motivation followed by a reaction? Consider:
The ripping of dorsal feathers through his grasp caused a jolt of adrenalin.
Another question. I’ve been taught to always keep the dialogue of one character in a single paragraph and break the paragraph up with action tags. Some tags might be considered motivators. Which takes precedence, this rule or MRU rules?
Example: “Oops,” Adriel cried from the stern. The raft rammed into submerged roots and careened into the platybelodons. The bull bellowed and lowered its head. “Pull Left!”
“Oops,” Adriel cried from the stern.
The raft rammed into submerged roots and careened into the platybelodons. The bull bellowed and lowered its head.
The second reads better, however since there are three people in the raft “Pull left!” requires another tag, which gets cumbersome and doesn’t read well.
Daniel Smith says
Happy Thanksgiving to you too Randy and thanks for responding to my question!
On Lynda’s question: I’ve stumbled on this too, if I’m understanding you correctly. My guess is that if you can break up the M from the R, you should. But I think I have a sentence or two that I couldn’t see doing that to.
Like this: “A sudden crack of thunder overhead made her jump.” Or “His long, deep sigh sounded so full of relief that it brought tears to her eyes.”
I could break them up but didn’t want choppy sentences. That would work with the thunder, I guess, but the other one is a scene end and needed to flow smoothly, imo.
A wee favor: I’m looking for specific reading suggestions on my latest blog post here: (http://camillecannon.blogspot.com/2008/11/hearing-voices.html)
Nice joinging the blog…this is my first attempt. I was reading the rules of MRUs and found them to be very helpful. I would like to submit my “one line” summary and see if it works. Where can I do this?