And more importantly, should you use MRUs everywhere? What if you don’t want to use MRUs everywhere?
Not sure what an MRU is? No worries, I’ll explain that before I answer these burning questions.
Kimbra posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
HI Randy, great site. I’m enjoying reading your blog.
My question is: How do you approach the MRU pattern rule when building in back story and providing character introductions? I understand the need for a constant driver pushing the story forward, and I try to integrate backstory into motivations and reactions, but sometimes I have a hard time forcing an MRU onto a brief exchange that conveys needed information–especially in the early chapters. There are other times that seem to require “quiter” moments, breathers almost in the rhythm of the story. I believe these can still be broken into MRUs, but they stretch. Can you give me an example of an MRU from a more mundane part of a novel than the moment a tiger attacks?
Randy sez: First a quick note to explain what MRUs are, since not everybody knows. (And if you want a more detailed explanation, I’ll point you to my long article on this site, “Writing the Perfect Scene,” which covers MRUs in much more detail than I can cover in a single blog post.)
What’s an MRU?
MRUs are Dwight Swain’s abbreviation for “Motivation-Reaction Units.” And what’s a Motivation-Reaction Unit? That’s the finest-grained level of storytelling that novelists use. You might guess that it’s a “motivation” followed by a “reaction” and you’d be right. But what are “motivations” and what are “reactions?”
A “motivation” is the term Dwight Swain uses to refer to anything that happens external to your Point-of-View character.
A “reaction” is the term Dwight Swain uses to refer to anything that the POV character does.
You might say that this is confusing terminology, and I whole-heartedly agree with you. But Dwight Swain was the master, and he created the language, so we’ll use his terms because his ideas are really, really good.
Here’s an example of a “motivation,” taken from my perfect-scene article:
The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.
This short paragraph is all about what the tiger is doing. Jack is mentioned in the paragraph, but he’s not the one doing the action.
Here’s an example of a “reaction,” taken from the same article:
A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”
This short paragraph is all about what our POV character Jack is doing. He’s feeling emotions. He’s acting. He’s speaking. He could also be thinking, but in this particular MRU, we don’t show his thoughts.
Why Should You Care About MRUs?
The reason you should care about MRUs is simple. In modern fiction, authors spend most of the story “showing” the story rather than “telling” the story. If you’ve ever gotten a critique from a professional editor with the words “Show, Don’t Tell” in big bold letters on your manuscript, and you wondered how to know when you’re showing and when you’re telling, here’s your answer:
- “Showing” means you’re writing in MRUs.
- “Telling” means you’re not.
Showing is usually a good strategy. Telling is usually a bad strategy.
But be careful.
“Usually” Isn’t the Same as “Always”
The problem is that “showing” is not always the best strategy. Sometimes you need to “tell” part of your story. Here’s why:
- “Showing” is more fun for your reader, but it’s inefficient. It gobbles up page count like crazy.
- “Telling” is less fun for your reader, but it’s efficient. You can “tell” something in a few paragraphs that would take many chapters to “show.”
As Kimbra noted, sometimes you might want to bring in part of the character’s backstory by “telling” it, rather than by “showing” it. (The way you “show” backstory is by using a flashback. The way you “tell” backstory is by using either narrative summary or exposition.)
How Do You Decide When to Show and When to Tell?
Here’s my almost-infallible rule for deciding when to show and when to tell:
- Show the exciting parts.
- Tell the boring parts.
The reason you show the exciting parts is because you want to spend as long as possible on the fun parts of your story.
The reason you tell the boring parts is because you want to get through the boring parts as fast as possible.
Not exactly rocket science, is it? That’s fine. Not everything we do in writing fiction is deep. Sometimes it’s okay to be simple.
The above rule is not an ironclad rule, but it’s a very good rule of thumb that will be right most of the time. There will be times when you violate this rule. Use your writerly instincts to guide you.
Got a Question for My Blog?
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 the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.