I am about to start writing the chapter on those pesky Motivation-Reaction Units for my WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES book. (For those who’ve never heard of MRUs, you can get up to speed almost instantly in my page on “Writing the Perfect Scene.”) MRUs are, in my opinion, one of the most important concepts you need to learn to write good fiction. If you get them right, then your scenes just flow nicely. If you don’t, then your scenes drive about like that ancient Dodge Colt I used to have.
The main problem I’ve always had with “Motivation Reaction Units” (Dwight Swain’s terminology) is that they sound like something cooked up by a robotics engineer. Robotics is wonderful, but fiction is about people, mostly. Powerful Emotional Experiences and all that.
The two main parts of the “Motivation Reaction Unit” are the “Motivation” and the “Reaction.” And I have huge problems with both of those terms:
1) “Motivation” is a word we already use elsewhere in fiction to describe the inner workings of our characters. Now we are using it here for something which is objective and external to our Point-of-View character. What sort of sense does this make? It just confuses my students. On a bad day, it even confuses me.
2) “Reaction” is a word we ALSO already use elsewhere in fiction to describe one of the primary parts of what Dwight Swain calls a “Sequel” and which I now prefer to call a “Reactive Scene.” So again, we have a word doing double duty and it again confuses people. Even worse, it makes it seem that our POV characters are purely reactive. In fact, our POV characters are as often as not proactive.
So how should we rename things so that we don’t use words that overlap with other contexts and that actually have something to do what’s going on?
Here is my thinking at the moment. According to Dwight Swain, the MRU is a unit with two distinct parts. Let’s call each of these parts a “Beat” which coincides more or less with a word that other people already use for a very small unit of action. Then each MRU has two Beats:
* Dwight Swain calls the first of these Beats the “Motivation,” which is always objective and external to our POV character. So let’s call it the Objective Beat.
* Dwight calls the second of the two Beats the “Reaction,” which is always subjective and internal to our POV character. So let’s call it the Subjective Beat.
Now things are pretty simple, especially in scenes in which you have several characters. In a case like that, it’s common to show several characters doing something before you show the POV character. In Dwight’s language, you have a Motivation that may run for several paragraphs and jump across multiple characters, and then a Reaction that covers just the POV character. In my proposed new language, you’d just have several Objective Beats, followed by one Subjective Beat. This is perfectly OK, but now the language is a bit clearer.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. We’ll have a scene with five characters, Malfoy, Hermione, Ron, Snape, and Harry, with Harry as the POV character. I’ll mark each beat as Objective or Subjective.
Malfoy sneered at Harry. “Think you’re really something, Potter? You’re nothing, and you’ll end up like your Mum!” [Objective Beat.]
Rage pulsed in Harry’s throat and he suddenly found that he couldn’t breathe. He flicked his wand out and jabbed it at Malfoy’s face. [Subjective beat.]
Malfoy’s face turned as white as his hair. [Objective Beat.]
“NO, HARRY!” Hermione screamed. “He’s not worth it!” [Objective Beat.]
Ron stepped up beside Harry and gently wrapped his hand around Harry’s fist. “She’s right, mate,” he said regretfully. “Malfoy’s just a stupid git. Wipe him off your shoes and just walk away.” [Objective Beat.]
Somewhere in the back of Harry’s mind, a high, cold voice laughed. A bolt of pain shot through his scar. He pulled his wand away from Malfoy’s sweating face. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. [Subjective Beat.]
Professor Snape walked around the corner and his sallow face scowled. “Is there some reason for four young students to be indoors on a fine spring day like today?” [Objective Beat.]
OK, I’d like to hear the opinion of my loyal blog readers. What do you think? Does it make sense to use the terms “Objective Beat” and “Subjective Beat”? Or are there better terms? I’m still grappling with these things. If there’s one thing I learned as a physicist, it’s that things are simplest when you choose the right notation and they’re complicated when you choose the wrong one. Likewise, in trying to describe what happens in fiction, things are simplest when you choose the right terminology and they get needlessly complicated when you use ambiguous terms.
Alastair Mayer says
Your example certainly makes your terms easier to understand, but I’m not sure they’re 100% congruent to Swain’s Motivation and Reaction Units. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve read Swain (and you’re motivating me to react by re-reading it).
The first pair of Objective/Subject beats is pretty clear. Then there’s “Malfoy’s face turned as white as his hair.” That’s clearly Objective, but I don’t see how any of that is Motivation in Swain’s terms — and perhaps that’s your point about his terminology being confusing. Hermione’s and Ron’s actions are motivating, and I guess the two of them together can make up a single Motivation Unit (or does Swain permit multiple Motivation Units before a Reaction Unit?).
In terms of keeping the story from wandering off into the woods, what (if any) limits should there be on the number of Objective Beats before a Subject Beat (and vice versa)?
Alastair Mayer says
And on re-reading your post, I see that you did say you could have several Objective Beats before a Subjective Beat. (D’oh.) That does make it clearer than Swain’s usage.
(Boy, do I feel silly now.)
Camille Cannon Eide says
Makes sense, I got nothing better. So, the way you’re headed, we’ll have OSUs, which should make your Beaver fans happy.
I’m just pumped that you’re rounding up the best of fiction writing basics and renaming/reorganizing it all into one complete, comprehensive discourse on the craft. Writing Fiction For Dummies is going to be simple enough for ‘freshmen,’ but just as valuable to ‘upperclassmen’ and beyond.
What I’m not so pumped about is sharing the path to publication with a fresh mob of tailgating novelists. When this book comes out, it’s gonna get stinkin crowded around here. 😀
Objective and subjective beats or external and internal beats sound fine… but they’re lacking something. Motivation/reaction have a sense of motion–something’s happening in each of them. Maybe that’s not necessary to get the idea across, but the lack of motion definitely gives the new terms a different feel.
I almost want to suggest stimulus/response, but that sounds so Pavlovian. Call and response? Insult/rejoinder? 🙂
Ha! I thought of stimulus/response, too, but thought it sounded too clinical. I agree that objective/subjective seems to be missing something. I’m drawing a blank on anything better, but I do like using the term “beat”. Action/Response Beats?
Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) says
I hate Objective/subjective every time I see it. They feel like the argument between deductive and inductive. Or stalactite and stalagmite. Yes, there are way to keep them straight, but I get annoyed just when I run into them (especially the latter two…).
It’s not that I feel they’re missing something, it’s that they don’t say anything useful. Something as random as “punch and recover” would be more useful to me than s/o, maybe (as Sean suggested)I just need more life in the words.
Jonathan Cain says
I think it’s a great idea to rework the terminology for your MRU’s into something better. I would argue with…I think just about everyone though when I would suggest that the book you seem to be writing doesn’t seem to be aimed at “Freshmen” or “Dummies” but rather at Sophomores or the “Not so Dumb”
Were I a Freshmen, I would want to purchase a book that talked about how to flesh out a character and give them motivation, or how to develop cohesive ideas for fiction or conflict or whatever that are actually workable. Typically, you are much higher level than that- all you really talk about is craft and the flow of scenes.
Like I said, this is wonderful, and I’m sure that your book will be terrific, but I wonder how many true “Dummies” it will actually help.
Randy sez: The book will of course cover how to flesh out those pesky characters too. And developing ideas for fiction. So far, I’ve only blogged about the content for a couple of chapters. There are 22 chapters total, and I try to cover all the essential areas, including some topics that I don’t think anybody ever talks about.
Steve Lewis says
Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth: Yeah, I think it works. Yeah, I know you expected something more long winded. It makes sense and there’s less confusion.
Alright, fine, here’s the longer part. William Foster Harris, one of Swain’s colleague’s, spoke about Objective and Subjective sentences (sentences not beats). That was something that helped me be able to see MRU’s in published work. Don’t no why I didn’t get the whole beats thing (like Robert Mckee)
I think this is genius Randy and much better than Swain or Foster-Harris. Kudos.
Sam Robinson says
Great to see how you’re tackling the building blocks of writing, Randy, and trying to discover how a relatively simple process can be described, well, simply. Here’s another couple of cents worth.
How about re-styling the MRU as a “Change Unit” comprising a Cause and an Effect, from the point of view, naturally, of the POV character.
The cause would be the external stimulus, and the effect would comprise the POV character’s response(s) in terms of feelings, actions and speech.
The plot must advance in the course of a Change Unit. If you have a cause with no effect, then the character either won’t feel real, or will seem irrelevant to your plot. If you have an effect with no cause then your readers are going to be left wondering why your character acted that way. If nothing changes, then you probably don’t need that bit of writing.
Richard Mabry says
You know, in simple terms these units are just “cause” and “effect.” Whether it’s science or philosophy, most folks understand this relationship. Maybe they’re just “cause units” and “effect units.” Works whether dealing with the changes in characters or circumstances.
I’ve learned lots of new terms in my life (and disliked most of them). I’m not sure the language matters so much as the simplicity with which you explain them. And I’m sure you’ll do a great job in the book, just as you did in person in your class.
Cathy Bryant says
It helped me to think of Stimulus and Response instead of Motivation and Reaction. Wow, this writer’s vocabulary stuff can get very confusing…
As a musician, I relate to using the term “beats.” Beats are the fundamental unit of rhythm in a piece of music. They are grouped into measures by the composer, yet the listener is largely unaware of the predetermined pattern. If a performer skips a beat, the listener will feel that something is off, even if he doesn’t know what.
Whether labeled Objective-Subjective Units or Cause-Effect Units (I consider either one an improvement over Motivation-Reaction), I will always think of them in terms of Beats. My personal favorite is Cause-Effect Beats.
I’m excited about reading your Upcoming Dummy Book.
Felicia K. Fredlund says
I’ve read the responses from people and your ideas, and I think I’d go more towards Objective/Subjective or maybe External/Internal (althought that can confuse on the account that the dummies can think that the internal can’t actually move around, since it would be only emotions (aka internal)).
I would not choose Cause and Effect, because it’s too universal. And Effect doesn’t indicate that it is the POV person that reacts, or rather is effected.
But in the end, as some said before me, it’s more about how you explain them, then the actual terminology.
Chris Ennen says
Why not call them external and internal beats?
I’d go with Cause-Effect beats or External-Internal beats.
Not fair to make a judgment from the little you’ve shared with us, but I’m gonna agree with Johnathan. I think you’ve got to bring this whole thing down a couple of rungs, which might feel silly to you but will be more easily digestible by a broader audience. You want someone who has suddenly decided to write a novel to be able to pick up your book and feel as though the fog is dispersing, not getting thicker.
Sheila Deeth says
I didn’t like MRU because I’m really bad with sets of letters – can’t spell words too well either, but at least spell-check helps with them. But I did like what MRUs taught me.
Are you using the phrase Point of View? (Help – I actually like POV – now why’s that?) Seems like you’re saying some things affect the character whose head you’re sitting in, and some are instigated by that character. External / internal sounds too clinical. Motivation / response sounds too much like they could both be internal. Outside / inside? Self and other?
The use of objective and subjective are better then what we started out with, but I think it would be just easier to call them external & internal beats. Maybe you could go a long the line of something like encounter beat and response beat.
Ack! I just got my mind wrapped around MRUs. And while the initials can be confusing, I think I still prefer the motivation-reaction terminology.
It carries the movement that the other terms here seem to lack. Like Myrtle, I appreciate the beats. So my vote is motivation-reaction beats. Or, if you prefer, MRBs. — Hmm! Mr.B….
Hannah L. says
I see them in my mind as, “external beat,” and, “internal beat.” Maybe that would help.
Lynnette Bonner says
Objective and Subjective seem a little confusing too.
I really like External/Internal, but can see the commenter’s point about the ‘internal’ being confusing in that they might think it is only an emotional response.
How about External Beat /Reaction Beat?
E. T. Young says
I’m pretty new to MRUs, but I’ll weigh in. Objective beats/Subjective beats, while better than MRUs, aren’t my favorite terms. When I edit, I find the external/internal delineation most helpful in sorting out my tricky spots.
However, I’m a simple gal. I consider it turn taking from a “not me, me” perspective. You do, I do. Who or what is doing something (i.e. talking, exploding, appearing, being). It’s either me (as my character) or it’s not me, and we take turns. All the “not me’s” go first. Yes, sometimes poor little “me” has to fend off more than one “not me.” Hardly seems fair, but “me” always rises to the occasion.
That’s probably too simplistic, but it works for me.
I guess I still like the terms Motivation and Reaction, even though those terms are used elsewhere in writing. Something happens (which in the character creates motivation) and because there is motivation, this prompts reaction by the character. The character’s reaction then creates outside stimulus (motivation) in which the character then reacts to again. Its a cycle…
As far as the need to “dummy” down the book for freshmen writers, they’re going to need to learn this stuff anyway, so why not at the beginning of their writing career and thus avoids weeks, months, or even years of forming bad habits in writing. I know from my own life I spent two years stumbling around, trying to figure out how to write. Then I was introduced to Randy’s site and after applying many of his thoughts and ideas, found my writing to greatly improve.
Keep up the good work Randy!
Pam Halter says
I like MRU – motivation/reaction and you’re known for those words, Randy. It could be more confusing if you were to switch up at this point.
Although I like Lynette’s suggestion of External Beat/Reaction Beat, if you feel you really need to change the wording. I think most people would be less confused with this than “subjective” and “objective.”
Rebecca LuElla Miller says
I think Objective/Subjective beats loses the connection between the two. Motivation-reaction made it clear that the one triggered the other. Cause/effect does that as well.
Other possibilities; Action/Reaction; Action/Response; Activity/Reply. I’m sure there are others, but I favor “Reaction” in the “Subjective” slot because it does a better job, in my opinion, of encompassing a character’s instinctive responses, thoughts, and actions.
Personally I think what you call this is less important than its acronym: OSB for objective/subjective beats; CEB for cause/effect beats; ARB action/respons beats. Hmmm. Nothing striking, but nothing horrible either.
I’m sure you’ll come up with a memorable name, Randy.
Catrina Bradley says
How about stimulus/reaction? Like Becky, I like “reaction”. As a freshman writer, I’m excitedly awaiting your book to be finished, but in the mean time, I’m learning tons from your blog.
Objective/Subjective is a bit confusing to me. I get it if I think about it, but my gut response to the word “subjective” is that it means “open to interpretation,” and “objective” as meaning more “based on the facts.” Obviously that’s not the context that they’re being used in here, but I have to stop for a minute to think about it. Whereas Motivation/Reaction, Stimulus/Response, and some of the other suggestions people have made make sense to me more quickly. I actually think I’ve seen Stimulus/Response used elsewhere for the MRU concept. Objective/Subjective can work, but I’m not sure it’s the best option.
Good luck deciding. 🙂 I’m looking forward to the book.
I agree Objective/Subjective loses something. I guess I tend to relate the words with telling, or opinion. I think Motivation/Reaction has a sense of moving the story forward, which OSB loses. If you’re set on moving away from MRU (which I think you explain well and they make sense to me) then Action/Reaction or Response would get my vote.
How about Event-Response units. That deals with the externalality of the Causal factor and the subjective internal nature of the response.
Robert Treskillard says
I definitely like that better than “MRUs”. Calling them “beats” makes a lot of sense.
Your book is going to be great, Randy!
Just a quick comment on a sub-topic in this comments thread. Please, please don’t “dummy down” this book you’re writing. The best instruction is available to all interested, intelligent students, even beginners.
Daniel Smith says
Me and good ‘ol thesaurus.com came up with the following combos:
Take/Give (Give and Take)
I like all of these, but my favorite has to be Trigger/Backfire. It has that exploding helicopters feel. 😉
Of those already mentioned in previous posts, I liked Stimulus/Response the best but I also came up with Threat/Response which I prefer. Threats come in many forms. Response is a general sort of word that also allows for many variations. Additionally, Threat has connotations of suspense and danger built in. This may be the best option from my perspective. So, give my vote to Threat/Response.
Feel free to mix and match. I tried to match the words based on commonalities and themes, but there’s room for improvement. Confrontation/Comeback for example.
Lynn Squire says
In my humble opinion, since this is a book for “Dummies” you want to keep the language as simple as possible – so, being a “dummy” myself, my eyes glaze over at large words like “objective/subjective” – they look too much like the words I would find in a university text book. That said, with a good explanation and great examples, such a minor difficulty can easily be overcome. 🙂
Also, I personally feel that discussing MRUs is a must for “freshman” writers. It was not until I understood them that I was able to move past the very basics of writing. And when I finally grasped them, plot and characterization came to life. As I deepened my understanding of how to develop plot and character I began to see how scenes and sequels, and therefore mrus, were the building blocks of writing. They definitely need to be taught early in a person’s writing career because they solve so many problems that come up in writing.
Lisa Hartjes says
Like Lynn Squire, Objective/Subjective is a problem for me. It’s like you’re trying to create a secret writer’s language.
Unfortunately, I don’t really have much advice to give about what to use instead. Action/Reaction sounds good, but it doesn’t really jive with the concept of internal and external influences. Hm. Maybe External and Internal?
I like Sam Robinson’s suggestion best:
“How about re-styling the MRU as a “Change Unit” comprising a Cause and an Effect, from the point of view, naturally, of the POV character.
The cause would be the external stimulus, and the effect would comprise the POV character’s response(s) in terms of feelings, actions and speech.”
…I love using the term Change Unit instead of MRU, and the words “Cause” and “Effect” seem most basic and easily understandable to me. As you explain each of the beats of the Change Unit, you can describe what sort of Cause, and what sort of Effect, you are talking about– it seems to me that’s where all the other terminology can go (objective/subjective, external/internal, etc). I vote for “Stimulus” and “Response” for runners-up to “Cause” and “Effect”, although they do seem like a return to Swainistic terminology, to me.
(I must say I really like Daniel Smith’s “Trigger and Backfire” too!) Sam gives good reasons for his choice of terms, too:
“The plot must advance in the course of a Change Unit. If you have a cause with no effect, then the character either won’t feel real, or will seem irrelevant to your plot. If you have an effect with no cause then your readers are going to be left wondering why your character acted that way. If nothing changes, then you probably don’t need that bit of writing.”
Yes! I can imagine a newbie “getting it” and building a great novel out of Change Units full of powerful Cause and plausible Effect… lead on, MacDuff!
Jim O'Brien says
What it sounds like is writer/teacher’s choice of words to describe the same lesson. Lajos Egri believes the most important part of any play or novel is its Premise. He belives Premise better defines the strength of a story better than theme, theisis, or any of its synonyms. Swain likes motivation and reaction. I’d leave it alone. Once you understand it, it makes no differnce what you call it. That said, I do think it is a hard disciple to grasp but not because of its wording, but because of its explanation. Sometimes it sounds like a jigsaw puzzle. If you spend to much time trying to solve it you can loose the feel of the story. Understand it but don’t get hung up on it.
I discovered Swain many years ago and have always found him to be an irritating and dogmatic bore. His premise that how to write fiction can be condensed into simple statements is obviously nonsense.
MRU is best treated as: Actions and Reactions.
Whether it is internal or external, subjective or objective is a larger matter which is determined by your choices in the story as a whole.
I (Proactive) Scenes
II (Reactive) Sequels
(with embedded MRUs in each.)
REAHere is how I brought order from the chaos of SCENES/SEQUELS/MRUs:
A. GOAL: (Rational Decision)= MOTIVATION (Internal or External)
B. CONFLICT: (EXTERNAL OBSTACLE)
C. REACION: (INTERNAL)
2. Reflex actions
3. Rational decision
D. ACTION: (Rational)
II (REACTIVE) SEQUELS:
F. REACTION: (INTERNAL)
2. Reflex Actions
4. Rational Decision = NEW GOAL = MOTIVATION
Thanks for listening. If I have overlooked some grievous error here, please forgive, and please point it out to me. I am only a novice, wanna be, so I probably don’t have a good grasp of anything, even.
CAUGHT: One Grevious Error!
One element of MRUs omitted in I (Proactive) SCENES
which should have read:
I (PROACTIVE) SCENES
A. GOAL (Rational Decision)=MOTIVATION=(Internal or External)
B. CONFLICT: (EXTERNAL OBSTACLE)
C. REACTION: (INTERNAL)
2. Reflex actions
* 3. Dilemma/Conflict = ****(This was omitted)
4. Rational Decision
D. ACTION (Rational)
Dave Withe says
How About Provocative Situation/POV Response.
The “motivation” must be external or at least not originating in the POV (I use a lot of Telepathic characters).
The “response” must be a POV response but should have both an internal (first) and an external (action) component.
To be more succinct Provocation/P-Response.
Neil Fontaine says
I like internal external. And for Scenes, I like action reaction.
I think what you should touch on in this chapter, though, is description. Say during that Harry scene, you stop to describe something, but you describe it from Harry’s POV, that is how he feels about it. Then that description is subjective, internal, but it is about the external, yet it is not a reaction to a motivation.
So what would this be? Like an interruption to the MRU? What about a flashback or backstory? That also interrupts MRU but is good for character development.
Daniel Harris Blacke says
I have not read this book, yet, but this seems a very important topic and I would like to weigh in on it.
I’ve read “Writing the Perfect Scene” so many times I’ve lost track.
The problem I see is that trying to reduce the abstract ideas behind “Motivation” and “Reaction” to such simple terms fails to fully explain the concepts.
Objective/Subjective does come closer, but again, it fails to fully capture the intended meanings.
Objective Motivating Image/Subjective POV Character Reaction begets OMI/SPOVCR Units or OMISPOVCRUs and still fails to cover all aspects….
I think, in the end, we’ll need to consign ourselves to the fact that no short acronym is going to do justice to the content being explained and a long acronym defeats the purpose.
(Neil Fontaine Says: So what would this be?
I believe the answer is: Fluff.)