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Monday, January 10, 2022

Writing Motivation-reaction Units (MRUs According to Swain)

Months ago, I broke down scene structure according to Dwight V. Swain, who arguably put together the most popular approach to scene structure. Today, I'm breaking down his second-most popular writing approach: motivation-reaction units (or "MRUs"). Again, I've waited so long to cover this topic, in part because I wanted to study it straight from Swain's own book--Techniques of the Selling Writer --first. 

Motivation-reaction units are used at the line level of writing--they're about getting the story written on the page properly and most effectively. Some writers have the tendency to write events in the wrong order, at the sentence level. For example, they may write:

Carrie screamed at the top of her lungs when Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into her thigh.

There is nothing technically, grammatically wrong with this sentence. But on the micro-level, it probably renders the events in the wrong order. The reader is picturing Carrie screaming before Barry stabs her. To make the experience more accurate, it'd be better to rearrange the sentence:

When Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into her thigh, Carrie screamed at the top of her lungs. 

Or you could even write it simply as two sentences:

Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into Carrie's thigh. She screamed at the top of her lungs.

Motivation-reaction units are all about putting things in the proper order so that the reader experiences the story the same way the character does--or nearly the same, anyway.

Motivation --> Reaction

Unless you are writing a special kind of science fiction or fantasy scene, your character doesn't live in a void. A "motivating stimulus" is (to quote Swain) "anything outside your focal character to which he reacts." It could be a sight, sound, smell, texture, taste--it can be almost anything in the world. In my earlier example, Carrie is our focal character. Her motivating stimulus is Barry stabbing her thigh. This leads to a reaction: she screams. 

The motivating stimulus comes before the reaction. And . . . 

Motivation + Reaction = Motivation-reaction Unit.

Simple, right?

Swain writes, "Each unit indicates some change, however small--change in state of affairs, change in state of mind. Properly presented and executed, each one moves your story a step forward. Link unit to unit, one after another, and your prose picks up momentum [and builds]. . . . This situation cannot but develop!"

But there's more.

Human beings can react in multiple ways from the same motivating stimulus. But there is a chronological order in which we naturally react. 

Read these sentences:

A bear stopped in the middle of the trail. "Let's get out of here," Harrison said. He jumped back, and his heart leaped into his throat.

Is there anything "wrong" with these sentences?

Not technically, not grammatically. 

But they don't render the experience most accurately. 

Why? Because as human beings, our bodies involuntarily react before we can speak. So, it'd be more accurate to change the arrangement.

A bear stopped in the middle of the trail. Harrison's heart leaped into his throat, and he jumped back. "Let's get out of here," he said.


In Swain's approach to MRUs, he outlines the natural reactions in this order:

- Feeling

- Action

- Speech

Feeling--"Harrison's heart leaped into his throat" (this isn't a literal action, it's a description of a feeling)

Action--"He jumped back"

Speech--"'Let's get out of here.'"

So we move from the most involuntary reaction to the most intentional reaction. We can't control our feelings. They are a natural response. Some of our actions are intentional, but many are more subconscious and instinctual--such as jumping back from a bear. Speech is almost always intentional. Harrison intends to say, "Let's get out of here."

Admittedly, in real life, some things do happen simultaneously. It's arguably possible Harrison jumped back at the same time his heart leaped into his throat. In this situation, I might write:

Heart leaping into his throat, Harrison jumped back.


Harrison's heart leaped into his throat as he jumped back.

Both technically, grammatically say they happened at the same time. 

But even when things happen simultaneously, it's often helpful to get them on the page in the right order. For example, you might write something like this:

Several things happened at once. John's stomach dropped. Peter backed up against the wall. And Mary cried out.

"The reason you do this," Swain writes, "is rooted in the very nature of written communication. For in writing, one word follows another, instead of being overprinted in the same space." In a written story, we can't actually render accurately on the page several things happening at once. You can only say that they did.

When you put things on the page out of order, it also obscures the sense of cause and effect. Writing . . .

Carrie screamed at the top of her lungs when Barry's hunting knife sunk deep into her thigh.

. . . places the effect before the cause, making it a touch more difficult to untangle and imagine.

Sometimes even trying to make something sound as if it simultaneously happened, puts a little extra strain on the reader, because cognitively, it's a little more difficult to try to imagine everything happening at the exact same time, when you are getting the information one by one. Just like when we put the effect before the cause, the reader has to sort of pause and re-imagine everything they read to happen at the same time. It's subtle, but it's there.

There is also often a sense of cause and effect even within the reactions. Meaning, if Harrison didn't feel any dreadful surprise at seeing the bear, then he probably wouldn't have said they need to "get out of here." Certainly if he felt pleased to see the bear, he wouldn't have said that. With that in mind, however, that argument can get pretty muddy, pretty fast, if we dig too deep into it, so let's leave that there.

I know, I know, some of you are thinking this is way too nit-picky! Don't worry, no one thinks you need to follow the order 100% of the time, not even Swain. Just that, generally speaking, it will render the experience more accurately for your reader. And in contrast, if you never follow the order, the experience will feel more jerky and disjointed. 

You also don't have to include every kind of reaction every time. For example, it's okay if I wanted to write . . . 

A bear stopped in the middle of the trail [motivation]. Harrison's heart leaped into his throat [reaction--feeling]. His daughter grabbed his hand [motivation]. So he put his arm around her shoulders [reaction--action].

Or even . . . 

A bear stopped in the middle of the trail [motivation]. "Let's get out of here," Harrison said [reaction--speech].

The idea is that what you do have on the page, you have in order, most of the time.

The only issue that can come up with leaving out one of the reaction types, is confusion. The example Swain gives is if the reaction is the action of "turning away," and the writer skipped the feeling reaction. People "turn away" for a lot of reasons--ranging from boredom, embarrassment, to even helplessness. So adding the feeling would help the audience interpret the action. 

"Hi, Mike," Jill said.

A sickly heat flooded Mike's face. He knew he was going red. He turned away.

So use good judgment. 

As a rule of thumb, the less important the motivating stimulus, the less likely you need every type of reaction. For a dramatic turning point, it may be helpful to use all three types. 

Swain points out that sometimes when figuring out the story, you may want to brainstorm backward. Meaning, if I want a certain reaction from my focal character, then I need to think about what motivating stimulus will lead to that. The motivating stimulus motivates, so it may be useful to consider what you want the focal character to do. Just make sure they are in the proper order when put on the page.

What motivating stimulus the character notices, to some degree, reveals character. For example, a character who goes to church to flirt with people will notice different things in the environment than a character who is going with the intention to be spiritually uplifted. So for the first, you may want to mention people in the congregation who aren't wearing wedding rings, then show how the character reacts to that. The second probably wouldn't notice who has a wedding ring and who doesn't. Instead, they may focus on the hymns, and respond more to that. How you describe what the character notices, may illustrate that character's perspective, also. Meaning, a character who hates dogs will focus on their sharp teeth or stink, whereas a character who loves dogs will focus on their wagging tales and smiles. 

Now obviously, some motivating stimuli demand a reaction, regardless of the character. If someone is stabbing your thigh, you're going to notice and react to that, regardless of what kind of person you are! (Same goes for seeing a bear when on a trail.)

You need to use some common sense.

But try to focus on the motivating stimuli that are meaningful to the story--motivating stimuli that demand attention, interpretation, and reaction from the character.

Updates to Swain's MRUs

Since Swain came up with MRUs, others in the writing world have made some updates and adjustments to it. This mainly relates to the reactions (feeling, action, speech). Some have noticed that the list doesn't seem comprehensive enough. For example, while Swain mentions thoughts in passing, he doesn't list them as a reaction. Do thoughts come after feeling? After action? Or after speech?

Personally, I would argue that, to some degree, that depends on the thought. If it's a seemingly immediate reaction, it probably comes right after feeling:

"Hi, Mike," Jill said.

A sickly heat flooded Mike's face [feeling]. He knew he was going red [thought]. He turned away [action].

But in some cases, it could come after action, if the action is more involuntary, as opposed to conscious. Remember, the involuntary, instinctual reactions happen first, then the more conscious, deliberate ones. 

Nonetheless, others in the community have come up with other lists. Personally, the most comprehensive list I've ever seen, comes from the book The Structure of Story by Ross Hartmann:

Physiological Reaction (reactions from the adrenal system, such as sweating or changes in heart rate)

Physical Reaction (instinctual reflexes, such as jumping back or closing the eyes)

Emotional Reaction (such as screaming, crying, or sighing (consider if the internal feeling is different than what the character shows others))

Analytical Reaction (conscious reasoning--"the character weighs their options using their own logic and reasoning (even if it's faulty)." This may include justification and rationalization.)

Anticipation (when coming to a conclusion about what to do in the analytical reaction, the character anticipates what might happen, based on what they choose).

Not every reaction type will be applicable to every motivating stimulus, and not every type will be on the page every time. This is just the natural order of things.

That's about it for MRUs. 

However, if you do want to learn more, Swain does talk about some of these things in here in more depth in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.


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My segment will be about the principles of pacing--and I'm pretty positive you'll learn something new from it. 

The series is totally free and runs from Jan. 17th - 28th, but you have to sign up to get access.

Claim your spot here: https://masterclass.beabestseller.net/September

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for really digging into this! I have the general understanding of MRU but Swain needs updating because writing styles have changed. And I'm so glad you address that. Thanks for the book recommendation!


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