Friday, April 18, 2014

Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs)

by Susan Craft

Here’s an excerpt from the draft of my manuscript, Laurel, before I edited it: 

Her heart sank when she noticed John standing at a distance, his expression aloof as if a curious spectator.

What’s wrong with it? The motivation-reaction is wrong. In other words, the stimulus should come before the reaction.

Here’s how it should have read:

She noticed John standing at a distance, his expression aloof as if a curious spectator, and her heart sank.

Motivation-Reaction Units, a key to compelling fiction, are created by alternating between what your POV character sees, hears, smells, tastes, or touches (the motivation) and what he does (the reaction). Motivation is external and objective (presented as if by a video camera).

In one paragraph, write motivation so your reader experiences it.
Example: The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.

In a separate paragraph, write your character’s reaction, exactly as he would experience it from the inside, giving your reader insight into your character.

According to writing instructor Dwight Swain, “The reaction is more complex than the motivation. The reason is that it is internal, and internal processes happen on different timescales.   When you see a tiger, in the first milliseconds, you only have time for one thing -- fear. Within a few tenths of a second, you have time to react on instinct, but that is all it will be -- instinct, reflex. But shortly after that first reflexive reaction, you will also have time to react rationally, to act, to think, to speak.

You must present the full complex of your character's reactions in this order, from fastest time-scale to slowest. If you put them out of order, then things just don't feel right. You destroy the illusion of reality. And your reader won't keep reading because your writing is "not realistic."
Example: A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack's veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger's heart, and squeezed the trigger. "Die!" he yelled.

There are three parts to the reaction: feeling, reflex, and rational action -- in that order.

In our example, feeling comes first because it happens almost instantly. Reflex is a result of the fear and requires no conscious thought. Lastly, come rational action and speech.

You can leave out one or two of these three parts, but whatever parts you keep in must be in the correct order.

Write each scene and sequel as a sequence of MRUs. Each motivation and reaction should be followed by another motivation an reaction. You can't afford to write one perfect MRU and then be happy. You've got to write another and another and another. Reaction will lead to a new motivation that is again external and objective and which you will write in its own paragraph.

Continuing the example we've created so far: The bullet grazed the tiger's left shoulder. Blood squirted out of the jagged wound. The tiger roared and staggered, then leaped in the air straight at Jack's throat.

When you run out of motivations or reactions, your scene or sequel is over. Don't run out too soon. Don't drag on too long.

Credits: Several years ago, I took a writing class led by Dwight Swain, and much of this post is from the notes I took while there. The drawing of the man aiming at a tiger was copied from the blog, Aussiehunter.

Susan F. Craft is the author of The Chamomile, a SIBA award-winning Revolutionary War inspirational romantic suspense.


  1. Thanks, Susan, for this fascinating message. This makes such good sense and is so helpful. Looking forward to trying it!

  2. Good stuff, Susan! Thanks for reminding us. We can't let this slip. Elva Cobb Martin