Thursday, March 19, 2009

Randy’s Motivation and Reaction Units

Another workshop I attended at the ACFW conference was entitled ‘Those Pesky MRU’s’ taught by Randy Ingermanson (Creator of the Snowflake Method of Writing a Novel). I’d heard the buzz about MRU’s on the web since Randy had first posted it on his blog but that only whetted my appetite so I was very excited when I was given the opportunity to see him present it.

The gist of this workshop is that for every motivation (what the character sees, hears or smells), there is a reaction (what he does).

Randy started by saying if it’s not a deep emotional scene, get over it as fast as possible. And even strike it out.

For the motivation, he says to imagine your character has a video camera stuck to his forehead and the reader will experience everything that your character sees, hears or smells. The motivation is external and objective.

In response to the motivation, your character will experience a reaction. This reaction has an exact sequence that is to be followed based on what is physiologically possible. The reaction is internal and subjective.

The sequence of events that make up the reaction are:

1 – Feelings – an instantaneous, visceral reaction

2 – Reflexive – an instinctive action

3 – Rational – Speech or internal monologue

Randy gave the example of a tiger coming towards you (the motivation) which could incite the following sequence of events:

1 – Feelings – Adrenaline surge, cold sweat, heart hammering, weak kneed

2 – Reflexive – You pull a gun in response

3 - Rational – You shriek or yell at the tiger and pull the trigger.

So the correct sequence is: Think, then act, then speak.

Every time your character does an action, start a new paragraph. It creates white space and speeds pacing.

Randy says:

"The Reaction is internal and subjective, and you present it that way, exactly as your POV character would experience it -- from the inside. This is your chance to make your reader be your POV character. To repeat myself, this must happen in its own paragraph (or sequence of paragraphs). If you leave it in the same paragraph as the Motivation, then you risk whip-sawing the reader. Which no reader enjoys.

The Reaction is more complex than the Motivation. The reason is that it is internal, and internal processes happen on different time-scales. 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." Even if you got all your facts right....

.... It is legitimate to leave out one or two of these three parts. (You can't leave out all three or you have no Reaction.) But there is one critical rule to follow in leaving parts out: Whatever parts you keep in must be in the correct order. If there is a Feeling, it must come first. If there is a Reflex, it must never come before a Feeling. If there is some Rational Action, it must always come last. This is simple and obvious and if you follow this rule, your Reactions will be perfectly structured time after time.”

He says the key to this Motivation and Reaction is that it’s repeated over and over and when you run out of motivations and reactions, your scene is over.

He also says, that if any part of your scene doesn’t contain an MRU, take it out. “You can't afford charity for a single sentence that is not pulling its weight. And the only parts of your scene that pull their weight are the MRUs. All else is fluff."

For more info on MRU's check out Randy's site at

This workshop really helped me write action scenes.

Do you write action scenes? Have you ever thought about the exact sequence of events involved? Have you checked Randy's blog prior to this? (It's on my bloglist.)


Karen said...

This is too funny. Yesterday I stumbled on a site and was so excited I started jotting down points. It was exactly what I'd been looking for and its the exact site you're talking about in your post!

And since I don't believe in coindences, I'm taking your post as a sign to use this technique.

ban said...

isn't it strange how you can 'know' something with your brain ie: the sequence of feeling, instinctive reaction, then thought reaction but it takes someone saying it out loud to make it actually sink in ... ? the lightbulb was always there but someone had to pull the string ! great post.

Hazel said...

Guess what I do first thing every day. I come to Prairie Chicks for my regular infusion of information and inspiration.

Anita, you and the rest of the Chicks keep me thinking like a writer every minute of the day. And today is no different - always something new to digest, and to apply to the writing I'm doing.

Thanks for today's post.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, you mean it's serendipity?

I love it when that happens. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey ban, thanks for saying that. I actually felt the same when I first read Randy's blog and to see him present it in person was special. Now when I'm writing, I remember it more because I can clearly see him standing at the front of the room and working through the actions.

Thanks for visiting.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Motivation is so key to our writing. Without proper motivation, and without the proper reaction to motivation (based on the personality of your character)the writing is unrealistic, unbelievable and emotionless. I'll be sure to check out Randy's site.

Thanks for the great post.

Anita Mae Draper said...

You're welcome, Hazel. I'm the same except that I usually read the blog on my iPod in the morning but don't comment because I have more to say than one fingering it. But I think of my response and then hours later I check the blog again and realize I never did comment.

I love the fact that each of us Chicks bring different aspects of the writing world and even if we do have the same ideas (waving at Karen and Janet) we still have different ways of presenting it (like Janet's humour) so that it its still a novel approach.

Thanks for stopping for a visit, Hazel.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey, thanks Jana.

Randy has all sorts of interesting writing tidbits on his site. He also puts out a free monthly e-zine on the writing craft called: Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine available through his site.

I agree about the motivation and reaction. I can honestly say I knew about it before without knowing the mechanics of it. Once I figured that out, my writing became so much richer and believable. At least that's what my CP's say. :)

Tara Maya said...

Thanks. I've seen his snowflake method before but this is more explicit.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks Tara, glad you could use it. I appreciate you dropping in.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Anita. I've been to Randy's blog on numerous occassions, but it's always good to get information over and over again so that lightbulb Ban mentioned actually goes on :) I'm going to be working on my first page for the SRW critique - I'll keep MRU's in mind for that exercise.

And I appreciate the compliment on my humour. You're right - we work well together and put out a pretty great blog (if I do say so myself).


Donna Alward said...

Hey you! Great post!

I'm a big fan of MRU's but I think it depends on HOW you think, because in some ways I feel like you CAN mess with the order. Especially feeling/reflex. A reflex is there because we don't think about it, so in certain situations, I think you can have the reflex first, and then the feeling...and then the thought. I've been in accidents. I didn't think or feel. I reacted. But then I felt - the shakes set in - and then I thought about what could have happened.

I think there are always ways to play with rules, but I will agree on this...each action does require a response. And how you form those responses is part of what makes your voice! :-)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet - I keep forgetting about that first page critique...

I'm glad you visit Randy's blog. Every time I go there, I find something else I want to remember. He really is fascinating.

BTW - yes, this is the same Randy who started the whole Write Like a Man workshop that I blogged about last week. :)

Helena said...

Wow! This is really helpful. When I started writing my romance, the lightbulb went on about thinking of plot and action in scenes. Now, I see how important it is to structure the scenes in a rational fashion to keep the flow going and the reader engaged in realistic moments.

I had never before checked out Randy's blog, but I went to his website this morning after reading your post. He also had some interesting things to say about Sequels to the original scenes. The same kind of structure applied to follow-up action.

I'll be keeping this format in mind as I continue to write (and re-write) the stories of Laura and Gordon, & Fiona and Duncan.

Thanks for the tips, Anita.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Donna, how's the east coast?

You're right about the order. I believe Randy even mentions there are exceptions in his Fiction 101 course which follows this one but it has to be done carefully or you lose the believablity factor. Due to space constraints, I didn't want to try to condense and maybe confuse so I left that part out. Yup, they're always the exceptions.

I know you've been 'in the cave' writing lately so I appreciate you taking the time to come out and visit. Your thoughts are always welcome.

Anita Mae Draper said...

You're quite welcome, Helena.

When I started writing, I just sat down and tapped out that first story without knowledge of structure. I just wanted to tell my story. But there's telling a story and then there's telling a story to keep your reader enthused and coming back for more. I want the latter. :)

Captain Hook said...

I actually write a lot of action scenes and never thought about it in quite that way. Must go contemplate.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there, Capt Hook. It'll be interesting to read your pre-MRU and post-MRU action scenes. Keep us inform won't you?

Thanks for stopping by.

Donna Alward said...

East Coast is very springy at last. :-)

I wish I had known about MRU's earlier. When I first clued in - about a year ago, to be honest, I related it to voice - I knew there was a rhythm to my writing and when I re-read my stuff I could tell if there was a beat left out. Guess what - in most cases those bits were missing RU's. LOL I just didn't know the term yet.