The Smallest Picture: Motivation Reaction Units

The Larger Picture and the Smaller Picture, part 2

The Smallest Picture: Motivation Reaction Units

Now let's look at the smallest picture in your story: the Motivation Reaction unit.

Events in your story can be broken down into a cause, followed by an effect. A "motivating stimulus" followed by a "character reaction."


1) Pick your motivating stimulus carefully. It should be significant to the character--her personality and/or goal will influence what she notices around her. It should also be pertinent for the plotline--your reader will assume every stimulus is important for the story.

2) The stimulus should require your character's immediate action.


1) It should be a reactive feeling, a chosen action, and/or specific words spoken. Not all reactions need to include all three (feeling, action, speech), but at the very least, your character's actions and/or speech should indicate her reactive feeling. Emotion is key.

2) The reaction should be in character (or reveal the character's personality) and a reasonable response. Nothing will put a reader off more than a stupid reaction to a stimulus--the infamous "Too Stupid to Live" heroines from horror flicks.

3) The reaction should serve to forward the story.

The M-R Unit:

The simplest MR Unit is two sentences:

a. Write a sentence without your character (motivation, or cause)
b. Follow it with a sentence about your character (reaction, or effect)

The man in the corner turned and took off his hat, revealing his features. (motivation)
Sara's hand tightened around her water glass. (reaction)
It slipped through her fingers and crashed on the floor. (motivation)
She ducked her flaming face and crouched down to pick up the pieces. (reaction)
The thump of a pair of cowboy boots grew closer, then stopped behind her. (motivation)
Her heart stopped beating as she waited for him to speak. (reaction)

Your scene is built on M-R Units. Once you get used to writing them, they'll become automatic. Like learning to drive: at first you have to remember each action--like pressing the brake, turning the key, putting the car in gear--but eventually it all becomes second nature.


Remember the scene you thought up in the last article (The Larger Picture: Character, Setting, Story)? Now write it using M-R Units.

Next: Scene and Sequel--Scene

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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  1. Hello there.

    I hate this MRU thing... Isn't it just common sense just to write things like that? This Swain fellow just makes me paranoid about my writing with all his fancy terms. I feel like the only way for my story to be good is if I churn out this fancy formula piece and become some Dan Brown wannabe... I hate I hate I hate(...GAH now I'm even reading this quick post over for MRUs...) Can't I just trust my own style... I mean... when I look back at all my writing, it is in MRU, Scene/Sequel, and properly paced... but it's because it just felt right, and I had an outline and planned the pacing.
    The only way I can see this as useful is if you are dyslexic and/or have never read a book before.

    But it is a neat way to break it down nonetheless... kinda like science... or hey, maybe that's why its so obvious to me, I study science, and am just practised at formulaish things.

  2. This is great. I know most of this stuff, but it's put together in a really useful way. I've made notes to keep by my computer to remind me to use all 5 senses and use motivations and cause statements.

    Thanks so much for posting this!



  3. Thanks, Carolyn! I'm so glad it was helpful!

  4. I find that when I have a paragraph that seems clunky, if I do some MRU analysis and rework it a bit, then it starts to flow. I don't think about this when I write, only when I'm trying to rewrite.

  5. Karin, that's great! For some people it's easier to think in terms of MRUs when they're writing, but for other people it's easier to use MRUs when revising. It's totally personal preference.


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