Are you using Dwight Swain’s “Motivation-Reaction Units” to improve your writing? Do you find them confusing sometimes? Join the crowd! Lots of people have trouble with those pesky “MRUs.” Today, we’ll look at them and disentangle things a bit.
Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
German reader here, my English is rather terrible, but… I will try.
I’ve been using MRUs for about two years and although I’ve gotten used to them, sometimes I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.
Am I right to assume that MRUs only work within “Showing” as opposed to “Telling”? And will every sentence of a “Showing”-Sequence fit into the MRU-Pattern?
Whenever my character remembers something or immediately interprets something he sees, I end up with sentences that could be either motivating stimulus or internal reaction.
I don’t think they matter enough to confuse the reader but they do confuse me sometimes. I’d like to hear your take on this.
Randy sez: Tim, if you hadn’t told me you weren’t a native English speaker, I wouldn’t have guessed it. Your English is excellent.
First, let’s make sure everyone’s up to speed. Dwight Swain has a long chapter, “Plain Facts About Feelings,” in his book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. If you want the short version, see my article, “Writing the Perfect Scene” on this web site.
I’ll be blunt, I’ve always hated the term “MRU.” It looks on paper like the military term “MRE” (meal ready to eat, which all military people insist is three lies in one). “MRU” sounds like something a cow would say. Because of that, I decided to change the term in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. So in my book, I break MRUs into their two pieces and call them “public clips” and “private clips” — in analogy with small film clips.
My thinking is this: When you’re well inside your viewpoint character’s head, the world is divided into two parts — the outside and the inside. Everything that happens outside the character’s head (and which could be experienced by anybody else) is public. Everything that happens inside the character’s head (and which could only be experienced by the character) is private.
When I split things this way, everything comes into focus for me. Now let’s look at Tim’s questions.
Tim asked if MRUs only work for “Showing” and not for “Telling.” I would turn things around a bit from that. If you want to “Show,” then you should use MRUs. If you want to “Tell,” then don’t even think about MRUs. MRUs are a very natural way to structure your “Showing.” They aren’t relevant for “Telling.”
Tim also asked whether every sentence in a “Showing” section will fit the MRU pattern. The answer is complicated because not all passages can be classified as 100% “Showing” or 100% “Telling.” Furthermore, even passages that are 100% “Showing” aren’t always done well. The MRU pattern helps you in two ways:
- It helps you identify pieces of a section that are “Telling” when you intended them to be “Showing”.
- It helps you identify pieces of a section that are poorly done “Showing.”
If a section of your work doesn’t fit the MRU pattern, then chances are good that one of the two above is true. HOWEVER, it’s possible that your work doesn’t fit the pattern and the section is still good “Showing.” There just isn’t any such thing as a paint-by-numbers way to write good fiction.
Tim’s final comment was that when his character remembers something or interprets something, it could be either motivation or response. I would classify any of those as response. More precisely, I’d classify them as “private clips.” (See how easy it is when you ask if something is “public” or “private?” The answer is instantly clear.)
Let’s look at an example to clarify things. I’ll just make something up out of the blue. In this farcical bit of fanfic, Harry and Ron are playing Quidditch and Harry is the viewpoint character but I’m going to scramble up the MRUs and inject a bit of telling:
The Quaffle came hurtling at Harry like a dementor on meth scaring the daylights out of him and making him dodge out of the way and collide with Ron. “Watch where you’re flying!” Ron shouted, which was dumb of him because if he’d been looking, he’d know the Quaffle had gone mental like the time Dobby bewitched the Bludger back in Harry’s second year.
Randy sez: This isn’t fully “Showing” and it isn’t fully “Telling.” It’s certainly mixing motivations and reactions all in one paragraph. You could summarize this in one sentence of narrative summary (i.e., “Telling”). However, it’s exciting enough that I’d recommend that you “Show” it. The procedure is simple: Break it up into paragraphs, so that each paragraph is either public or private, and taking care to turn any sentence fragments into complete sentences. Here’s a first cut at it:
The Quaffle came hurtling at Harry like a dementor on meth.
Fear shot through Harry. He dodged to his right and slammed into Ron.
“Watch where you’re flying!” Ron shouted.
Harry shot upward toward the sky with the Quaffle in hot pursuit. It felt exactly like the time Dobby bewitched the Bludger back in Harry’s second year. Only this time, Harry knew no mere house elf was trying to hurt him. This time it was Voldemort.
Randy sez: If you look at this, you’ll notice it’s longer because I broke things up into paragraphs and had to add some sentences to make sense. Here’s a blow-by-blow accounting:
Paragraph 1 is “public.” It shows what the movie camera would capture — a Quaffle hurtling at Harry.
Paragraph 2 is “private.” I’ve added an explicit emotive reaction instead of the vague original about “scaring the daylights out of him”. Then I’ve made a complete sentence showing his physical response to this emotion. Note that the movie camera could never show the emotive reaction. It could of course show Harry swerving, but this action is still “private” because Harry is the viewpoint character. The reader will experience this action from inside Harry’s skin.
Paragraph 3 is “public.” A tape recorder could catch Ron’s shout.
Paragraph 4 is “private.” It’s all about Harry — his actions, his feelings, and his thoughts. In writing this, it seemed natural to expand on that memory of Dobby and then add in some things about Voldemort that weren’t in my first version. When you write using the MRU pattern, this sort of thing just naturally suggests itself.
There is very much more to say about those pesky MRUs (or “public clips” and “private clips”). If you want to know more, see Swain’s book or my book or read my article on “Writing the Perfect Scene.”
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Do MRUs make your life simpler — or more complicated?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
David Todd says
When I first came upon this MRU business from reading your blog, Randy, I tried to write by it and became hopelessly confused. I’m afraid this would take a significant amount of study before I would understand MRUs and be able to use them.
Bernard S. Jansen says
It’s clear that the MRU-based Quaffle scene is “better writing” – not just by analysis, but by first impression. It flows well, and makes sense.
The MRU (public/private) system makes a lot of sense, and reflects real life: something happens, I respond, something else happens, I respond, etc. Using paragraphs to break up public/private changes makes it simpler for the reader, because a new paragraph warns the reader that something, however minor, has changed.
I can say with certainty that MRU’s have transformed my writing. I found your article about this topic shortly after completing the first 9k words in my WIP. I decided that the idea could be crazy enough to work and rewrote the whole thing as MRU’s. WOW, what a difference! More impact, more suspense, more everything.
I’ve tried (for the most part) to continue writing in MRU’s ever since. I’m around 60k into the WIP draft. I do it now almost without thinking about it and receive continuous compliments from my critique buddies at my incredible “storytelling” ability. One in particular, who’s currently querying her first novel and reads my draft scenes as soon as they are written, said (just two days ago), “I wouldn’t believe this is your first draft if I wasn’t ‘over your shoulder’ watching you write it.” I don’t have the heart to “tell” her I’m not naturally brilliant. I’d rather “show” her without revealing my secret – for now. 🙂
Martha Rogers says
Since I started using MRU’s, my writing has improved. Combining it witn deep POV makes my characters much more active and the story better. I just remember that a character can’t react to something that hasn’t happened yet. So I have something happen, then have the character react to it with an outward action as well as an emotional one and build the scene around it with a few more. I hope that’s a correct assumption, and I think it’s what helped sell my first novel.
Tina Dee says
I feel it makes it harder in the writing process, but if I do it well while writing then I’ll have an easier time in the revision/editing process, otherwise, I’m revising into private/public clips.
I do find private/public clips harder to write, but expect it will get easier as I continue to write them. What I really like about them, and I think this shows in the Quaffle scene, is that the clips put me in the skin of the POV character and force me through his experiences. I have no choice, no longer just a reader, but now a participant, to be that character. I want my readers to feel that way about my stories and POV characters.
Thanks for going through MRUs/clips with us, it clarified a couple of things, and I love this subject.
In answer to your question, definitely more complicated. I’m a detail person, but MRU’s kill me.
After reading your piece on MRU’s I decided to go along and work with it. My story is written in first-person POV, which makes for a very deep character; and the private/public technique helps in the interpretation of my character to the reader. It’s hard work, but mightily worthwhile. Thanks.