During Mary Buckham’s recent online Pacing class, she suggested we improve our scene pacing by following a model found in Chapter 4 of Dwight V. Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. That model involves breaking scenes into goal/conflict/disaster, followed by the point-of-view (POV) character’s reaction/dilemma/decision in reaction to the disaster. This model resonated with me.
So recently, when I was considering how to sharpen my paragraphs, I pulled out my trusty copy of Swain’s book and reread Chapter 3, “Plain Facts About Feelings.” In it, Swain suggests that the key to writing better paragraphs is to break moment-by-moment action into motivation/reaction units (MRUs).
I’m sure many of you have mastered writing MRUs, but today I thought I’d review Swain’s advice for those of you who, like me, still sometimes struggle.
According to Swain, the first step is to understand that, like scenes, MRUs must be written from the perspective of a single POV character. This hooks the reader because it shows the cause-and-effect interplay between the character’s internal world and the external world that surrounds him or her.
Let’s start with a breakdown of MRUs. The first part of the MRU, a Motivation, is a stimulus from the outside world that impinges on the POV character. A motivation could be a pink-purple sunset over the ocean, an earthquake rumbling below his or her feet, a gunman at the front door.
The second part of the MRU, a Reaction, involves the POV character reacting to that Motivation.
Swain says that Motivations and Reactions must happen in the right order. This “right” order is something with which I have long struggled, which probably accounts for the vague dissatisfaction with some of my paragraphs reported by reviewers.
So what does Swain suggest is the right order? Based on human psychology, he says the POV character first Feels (an emotion or involuntary reaction), then Thinks, then takes Action and/or Speaks. For instance, in the case of the gunman at the front door, the POV character might clench her jaw (Feels), remember the money she stole from the gunman (Thinks), grab a gun off of the mantel (Action) and say, “Get out of here, I have a gun. (Speaks)”
Here’s an example of wrong and right order.
Wrong order, subtly confusing:
- Isabel flinched (Reaction) when a man jumped out of the rustling bushes (Motivation).
Right, clearer order:
- (Motivation) The bushes rustled.
- (Reaction) Isabel turned.
- (Motivation) A man jumped out.
- (Reaction) She flinched. Was that the guy who’d chased her earlier? She pulled out her can of Mace. “What do you want?”
Swain provides a number of other tips for building strong MRUs. For example, he recommends laying on details about what the POV character sees and senses from the environment when the writer wants to build suspense or help the reader understand the logic of the POV’s next step.
I suggest the following if you want to get better at writing MRUs:
- If you haven’t already done so, read Swain’s book. It’s a classic.
- If you want clarification on the psychological underpinnings of “right order” for MRUs, go to licensed therapist Jeannie Campbell’s blog: http://charactertherapist.blogspot.com/2011/10/predating-mru-was-swain-fan-of.html
- If you want to study a chapter broken down into MRUs, get a copy of the Kindle-based novel Oxygen by Randy Ingermanson and John B. Olson. Randy and John, in Appendix B, helpfully break their first chapter into MRUs: http://www.amazon.com/Oxygen-Writers-Journey-John-Olson/dp/1935929372