With the idea of cause and effect firmly in our grasp, we can safely dive into Motivation-Reaction Units (MRU).
Shape Emotion through MRUs
At its most basic level, an MRU is a pure cause-effect pattern.
“It is cause and effect applied to people. Cause becomes motivating stimulus … effect, character reaction.“
Swain defines a motivating stimulus as “anything outside your focal character to which he reacts.” A character reaction is “anything your focal character does in consequence of the motivating stimuli that impinge upon him.”
It’s a simple formula:
One motivating stimulus unit + One character reaction unit = One MRU
A child burns his hand on a hot stove. He pulls his away instantly.
A woman hears a car door slam outside. She thinks her ex-husband has come to stir up trouble.
Easy, right? But of course we can break down stimulus and reaction a little bit more. The idea isn’t to over-complicate things, but help us understand how MRUs work at an atomic level.
Again, Swain comes with his list of three; three things that are all important to a well-formed stimulus:
1. Significance to Character
How do you want your character to react to a scene? Once you’ve decided that, you pick a motivating stimulus that evokes the reaction.
Let’s imagine a young girl’s birthday party. She’s surrounded by kids and adults. As the writer, is it you intention to show her happiness? If so, have her notice the raucous laughter and giddy smiles of her friends, or the heavenly sweetness of her favorite cake — German chocolate.
But maybe you don’t want her to be happy. So instead, she notices the abandoned chair where her father should be. The chair that’s always empty because he’s too involved with his work to attend her parties. Just couldn’t make it this time kiddo. Daddy will make it up to you, I promise. His voice runs through her head, but she’s gotten better at holding back the tears.
2. Pertinence to Story
You drive the story forward by choosing a stimulus that is pertinent to the plot. Think about where you want your story to go. Where do you want your character to end up, mentally and physically? This will steer you toward the right stimulus to produce the reaction you’re seeking.
You’ve decided that your man will wrap an old sheet around his neck and pretend to be a superhero. What sort of stimulus would drive him to make that decision? His elderly mother is mugged and he’s filled with disgust that no one was there to help her. Perhaps reading through a comic book stirs up discontentment about his dead end custodial job, driving him to do something that he thinks will make a difference in the world.
The stimulus should demand a response. It’s what keeps your character active and the story moving. If the stimulus does nothing but make the character go, “Well, that was interesting. So anyway, as I was saying…”, well it’s not likely to achieve your goal (though such a scene could be made to do so, but you get the point). Basically, if your stimulus is significant and pertinent, motivity should come right along.
With so much to be said about motion in your story, I think now is a good time to point out something important:
“Understand, please: This is not an appeal to eliminate all mood and color. The sense of movement isn’t the only, or even necessarily the most important, element in your story. Motivity is a matter of degree and pacing, not an absolute. You’ll always have a host of stimuli that ignore it. However, your story may sag if you forget about it altogether.”
How can a character react on the page? In all the ways we do so in real life.
Our first reaction to any stimulus is pure instinct. Feeling that can’t be controlled on a conscious level. Just like the child who touched the stove, there are times where your subconscious acts on its own and says, “Pull away!” or forces your heart skip a beat.
Our second reaction is action itself. We’re not just talking about a physical actions like slamming your glass on the table during an argument at dinner. Before that, your brain took mental action. You thought about what your mother said to you and wondered if you should be upset; thought about her constant lack of appreciation for everything you do for her. Only then does it make sense that your brain would engage your nervous system and translate thoughts to action.
The third reaction is speech. Now you have your mother’s wide-eyed attention. It’s time to tell her how you really feel. Or maybe you meekly apologize for ‘accidentally’ dropping the glass and continue on with dinner.
There you have it, the gamut of reaction to any motivating stimulus. Now if you use this pattern over and over and over, never deviating like an automaton, your writing is going to be excruciatingly flat. The key concept to remember is that you want to provide enough information to avoid leaving the reader confused. It takes practice and an observant eye to determine when you need to stray. Also, you don’t always need to provide all three reactions. Be creative! You’re the writer and inventiveness is your gift, so show it in your prose.
That’s great, you say, but I’m a beginner and I need a starting point. Fair enough. Before you can truly figure out where you need to add or cut detail, you need to understand the goal of MRUs – manipulating tension.
Can You Feel the Tension?
Some stories have too much detail. Some not enough. How do you know where the balance lies?
Swain says to think about emotional time.
If I may quote Swain quoting Albert Einstein:
“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than an hour.”
We all know time flies when you’re having fun. We also know that tension brings time to a near standstill.
So what’s behind this idea of tension? Fear. Fear that something will or won’t happen.
How does this affect your writing?
“…you translate tension into space: The more tense the situation as your focal character experiences it, the more words you give it.”
This is why irrelevant scene details bore many readers. They instinctively assume that if you’ve gone on and on about something, it must be important to the story. If you took five hundred words to describe a pair of dingy curtains and you never hear about them again or they don’t paint your character in a certain light, you’ve gone too far.
Another rule of thumb is to summarize when the focal character’s state of mind is static and detail during significant, pertinent changes.
If Darryl has to drive across town to meet a lover and the drive itself is a very ordinary thing, you can summarize. If his car ends up in the ditch halfway through the trip and Darryl winds up losing a leg, that’s going to demand a blow-by-blow account.
Writing an MRU
So how do you write the most basic MRU?
- Write a sentence without your character.
- Follow it with a sentence about your character.
- The bullet pierced the cabin door. Jason fell to the floor and covered his head.
- Wind swept through the valley and brought with it an October chill. Caroline crossed her arms and pulled her sweater in closely.
As always, the rules aren’t set in stone but Swain recommends that beginners stick with the basics when starting out. It will help limit the muddied waters that can occur with more advanced forms.
Once you’ve nailed the fundamentals, you can judiciously craft MRUs into page-long events. Remember, MRUs are composed of motivation units and reaction units. This makes them very flexible.
In the end, they’re tools. Don’t ignore them, but don’t overuse them. Be sensitive to where they can serve your story and to where variety is best placed.
I hope you found this installment as informative as it was for me to write it. The next entry will zoom out past these sentences and paragraphs to the next circle of Swain’s ideas – Scenes and Sequels.