In yesterday’s post, I talked about those pesky “Motivation-Reaction Units” popularized by Dwight Swain. Today, we’ll look at them a bit more, because (by some coincidence) the next question on my stack is also about MRUs.
Adrian posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hello Randy! I found your articles very useful, they gave me real power to create! I’m currently planning my new novel (already wrote one about 6 years ago) and have a following problem during writing the final text… Let’s say I write a scene. My problem is that sometimes my scene looks like this:
ACTION (Did this, did that)
It looks like movie scenario sometimes.
Could you please confirm, that MRUs are the best solution to my problem? I guess use Motivation only and lack Reaction? What do you suggest?
Randy sez: Hmmmm, I’m not sure why the above is bad. If you write excellent action and excellent dialogue, then you’re well on your way to writing good strong commercial fiction. If the problem is that they’re not well mixed, then the solution is to mix them better.
On the other hand, if the problem is that your scene is composed entirely of what Swain calls “Motivation” and with none of what Swain calls “Reaction,” then you do have a problem because your viewpoint character is never doing anything.
The problem we novelists face is that we can’t show “everything happening at once” like they do in the movies. The screen is two-dimensional and there can be a lot of action by several different characters all at once. Fiction has no screen. Fiction has only a sequence of letters that combine to form words, then sentences, then paragraphs. Fiction is much more linear than a movie.
Writing in MRUs solves this problem. MRUs force you to switch back and forth rapidly between your viewpoint character and the other characters in the story.
When you’re focusing on anything but your viewpoint character, you are showing action, dialogue, or description that directly affect the viewpoint character and force him to act. These are what Swain calls “Motivations” but the term is confusing and I’ve taken to calling them “public clips” because anyone can see these things.
When you’re focusing on your viewpoint character, you are showing action, dialogue, interior monologue, or interior emotions. Swain calls these “Reactions,” a term I’ve never liked because your viewpoint character is often quite proactive in these. So I prefer to call them “private clips” because they are experienced by your reader as if she were the viewpoint character — from the inside.
I prefer to mix the various elements well when writing either public clips or private clips. A public clip should not always be JUST action or JUST dialogue or JUST description. (It can be, if things are moving rapidly.) Generally, a public clip will be a mix of these.
Likewise, I think it’s wise to mix the private clips up also. You can show JUST action or JUST dialogue or JUST interior monologue or JUST interior emotion. (Again, if you only show one of these, it tends to speed up the pace.) But generally I like to mix two or more of them.
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.