Motivation-Reaction Units! oooh!
In last week’s post I shared about a strategy about how to analyze your scene/sequel structure. Every chapter contains scene-sequel cycles, my chapters average 2 or 3. But within every scene and every sequel are motivation-reaction units. (This phrase is used by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of a Selling Author and is well-summarized in the blog Writing the Perfect Scene. Where I lack creativity, I make up in resourcefulness!)
The nuts and bolts:
Motivation: What your MC sees, hears, feels, tastes, or smells. It is observable and objective.
Reaction: begins internally and may end internally or externally. The MCs reaction should mirror real life. Initially, we react to things emotionally, something we can’t control, and to varying degrees depending on the motivation. Sometimes the emotion is followed by a knee-jerk reaction. Again, something we can’t control. This happens usually in more dramatic or surprising situations. Sometimes we skip the reflexive response and have a thought, or say something, or do something. And there are some situations when all three occur. When that happens, it usually follows: emotional reaction – reflexive reaction – thoughtful reaction.
Common sense, isn’t it?
As you are analyzing your scenes and sequels for their larger structure, you can mark down the side of the page when you are reading a motivation or a reaction. This reveals story parts that are not motivation or reaction, and therefore don’t belong. I have read nearly a full page in which my character is not reacting to anything. A full page of motivation is too much. The reader has identified with the MC and wants him to be engaged, not just an observer. I also noticed, despite Swain’s suggestion that Motivations and Reactions alternate paragraphs, that my writing often had one, sometimes two, MRUs, within one paragraph. (I’m not usually a rule breaker, but I’m okay with this one. Especially since I have looked at other children’s books and noticed that accomplished authors have done that too. Nonetheless, MRUs fill their pages.)
The only place that I ignore the MRU pattern is when I am establishing setting. For the sake of my reader, this needs to be done swiftly and the action needs to get going again. There are certainly more patient readers who like a thorough picture painted for them. Know your reader and their attention span!
An example from the bookcase: Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin
I’m almost at the first floor when I hear the door open upstairs. It’s my aunt. (motivation – M). I stop and wait for her to catch up. I knew she’d come, (Reaction – R) and she does, arms reaching out and pulling me in. (M) With her face so close, I see she looks like my dad. Though my dad never cries, of course. (R)“He’s wrong,” I say. “My dad’s not an enemy of the people. You know that, don’t you?” (Still R) She nods and pats my head, or tries to arrange my hair (M) – I don’t know which (R). “I’m sorry, Sasha,” she says “If we take you in, they’ll arrest us, too. We just had a baby. We have to stay alive.” (M) She pushes something into the palm of my hand, folds my fingers over it, and runs upstairs (still M). I know it’s money. I’ll need it. I’m grateful. When I look, it’s not much, but at least in the morning I can take a streetcar to school (R). While alternating paragraphs for motivations and reactions is clearly not followed here, the MRU pattern certainly is. Study some text for yourself. Pick a favorite book off the shelf and see if that author uses MRUs. Well, January is research month for me. So next time I will share some research tips I’ve picked up along the way. Til then, Enjoy playing with words!