Story Structure, Part 2: the MRU
Remember that mid-level scene-by-scene story structure works best with a rhythm of Goal, Conflict, Disaster, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. You can divide this rhythm into Scenes and Sequels, as Dwight Swain does, or you can divide them into pairs (Goal/Conflict, Disaster/Reaction, Dilemma/Decision), or you can consider them one long unified string of tension that repeats over and over throughout your story. It isn’t a formula, because every author implements it differently. Your reader won’t “see” this mid-level story structure because you’ll clothe it in characters, setting, thoughts, emotions, dialogue, action, and so on. Your reader won’t notice the mid-level story structure any more than they’ll notice the macro-level story structure… unless, of course, you deviate from it in a distracting way. Then they’ll notice that something is amiss, even though they won’t know what exactly it might be.
This effect is even more pronounced with micro-level story structure. It really needs to follow at least the basic principles of something Dwight Swain calls the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU).
Sounds like something an astronaut would strap into for an EVA, right? Fortunately, it’s not nearly so complex, nor so uncomfortable. The MRU is simply a “syntax of action” for any sort of narrative writing. Like the royal order of adjectives, the thoughts, words, and actions in our story must happen in a certain order. If they don’t, they “just sound wrong.”
This order isn’t as capricious as the royal order of adjectives seems to be. It imitates the way we experience such things in real life— this is one way we give our writing a sense of realism. So the Motivation always comes first, the Reaction always follows it. Always. (You’d be surprised how often writers put the Reaction first and then reveal the Motivation for it.)
The Motivation is external to the POV and described objectively, as if you are seeing it through a camera lens (or through whichever of the five senses is primary in that instance). Only one chief Motivation at a time—give the character(s) an opportunity to react to it before you pile on more Motivations or stimuli that demand a response from the POV character. (On the other hand, feel free to write a complicated Motivation, as long as it doesn’t require more than one kind of Reaction from your character: it can be a complex and nuanced Reaction but not a compound Reaction in which one part of it feels disjointed from the other. Hard to describe, but you’ll recognize this when you see it.)
Also, you’ll find it helps your reader follow the action if the Motivation sentence does NOT mention the character who will be reacting to it. This keeps the Motivation from accidentally being mistaken for, or awkwardly blending with, a Reaction.
The POV character’s Reaction begins with a new paragraph and is subjective and internal. It follows two kinds of syntax logic:
- The timescale in which the responses actually happen, from milliseconds to whole seconds of time. Quicker things are described first, followed by things that take longer.
- The layering of responses that build logically upon one another. The soldier bursts into tears and then tries to regain his composure; he does not try to regain his composure after bursting into tears. (Both are true, of course, but notice the sentence syntax!)
Fortunately, there is a simpler three-step guideline to help us follow the Reaction syntax:
- Reflexive Action
- Rational Action/Speech
Unlike story arcs or Scenes and Sequels, it isn’t necessary to include all these ingredients, but whichever ingredients you do include—and you must include at least one or there’s no Reaction—they must appear in this order.
Swain has several examples of how this looks in print, but they have gotten dusty over the years, so I’ll use my own example:
Motivation— The greenhouse membrane bulged and shivered for a moment in the glare of the rover’s floodlamps before the ceiling seam split from end to end, belching warm humid air into the hard Martian night. (Entirely objective, and external to the POV character: we don’t even know who that is, from this paragraph. It must be pure stimulus, pure external objectivity.)
Reaction— Valdemar clenched the control yoke in horror, wide eyes fixed on the roiling glittering cloud of flash-frozen water vapor as it billowed upward and vanished into the dark beyond the rover’s glow. (Feeling + Reflexive Action, immediately followed by a tidbit of Motivation, which begins a new Reaction— Flush with desperate rage, Valdemar punched the throttle, sending the rover leaping toward the withering remains of the greenhouse. He keyed the mic. “Hang on, Kara, I’m coming!” (Feeling, Rational Action and Speech: no Reflexive Action this time, but what’s there is in the right sequence)
Heres another example:
Motivation— Broken glass crunched under the tires of a sleek black town car as it glided to a stop along the curb outside the sagging chain-link fence. (This is described the way a dispassionate observer might see it. One that is standing right where the POV character is standing, of course; we see and hear only what she can. We are not shown who is in the car, nor are we shown the kids responding to it or commenting on it—unless we see other bystanders’ responses as part of the motivating scene the POV character witnesses.)
Reaction— A chill raced up Jocasta’s spine, raising the fine hairs along the base of her neck. (Feeling first!) She twitched her face away from the car, hunching into her hoodie (Instinctive Reflex) as she reached out tentatively with a tendril of Awareness— not into the car itself, where her Awareness might be sensed, just to its tires where they touched the pavement. (Rational Action)
The tires reeked of death. (A new Motivation: external and objective, and it gets its own paragraph)
Reaction—“The Husks found us, you guys. There’s at least one of them in that black car.” (Rational Speech: other Reactions were left out this time.
But the POV character’s Reaction serves as Motivation for her friends’ Reaction— Kent and Kennedy stiffened and traded glances. (Reflexive Action, then maybe a Rational Action; the glances might have been Reflexive too, but if they weren’t, they appeared after the necessarily instinctive response. Either way, it’s good.)“Act casual. Just stand up and let’s head toward the taco truck as if we were regular kids,” Kent muttered. (Rational speech)
An example from David Weber:
Motivation— Castellano opened his hand. The handkerchief leapt into the air, frisking in the playful breeze (External and objective, leading directly into the Reaction, same sentence:), and Denver Summervale’s brain glowed with merciless fire as his hand came up. (Feeling, then Reflexive Action: this guy is a professional duelist.) The pistol was an extension of his nerves, rising into the classic duelist’s stance with the oiled speed of long practice while his eyes remained fixed on Harrington. His target was graven in his mind, waiting only to merge with his weapon’s rising sights (Since this is one of the two action-climaxes of the book, we are getting super deep POV here, super-slow-motion action, every detail of the scene described to us—and because it’s all in proper MRU sequence it feels realistic. Because Weber is a good wordsmith, it isn’t boring either. Yes, this is more Reflexive Action, possibly merging with Rational Action, if only because he has willed this quick kill for a long time. But Weber weaves this deep-POV Reflexive Action with the next Motivation…) when white flame blossomed from her hand and a spike of Hell slammed into his belly. (Whoa. What? From her hand, not his? Slammed into his belly? It’s described from Summervale’s POV but as objective and pure-stimulus as possible: Weber doesn’t show Summervale’s Reaction until the next paragraph.
Reaction— He grunted in disbelief, eyes bulging in shock (Feeling/Reflexive Action) and the fire flashed again. A second sledgehammer slammed him, centimeters above the agony of the first shot (another Motivation, objectively described, leading directly to his Reaction) and astonishment flickered through him. (Feeling) She hadn’t raised her hand. She hadn’t even raised her hand! She was firing from the hip, (Rational Thought, at last, but Weber interrupts it with yet another Motivation) and— (new paragraph here, btw) A third shot cracked out, and another huge smear of crimson blotted his black tunic. (Objective as can be. We might be watching that one from the sidelines.)
Reaction— His pistol hand was weighted with iron (Feeling) and he looked down stupidly at the blood pulsing from his chest. (Reflexive Action) This couldn’t happen. It was impossible for him to— (another belated and ineffectual Rational Thought, again interrupted by another bullet from our heroine, beginning yet another new paragraph)
Motivation— A fourth shot roared, punching into him less than a centimeter from the third,
Reaction— and he screamed as much in fury as in agony. (Reflexive Action) No! The bitch couldn’t kill him! Not before he got even one shot into her! (Rational Thought, such as it is) He looked back up, staring at her (Rational Action) wavering on his feet (hmm, back to Reflexive Action!) and his gun was back at his side. (This is actually an external, objective Motivation but doesn’t get a new paragraph. We are deep POV in a dying killer’s last moments and things are getting believably weird, but they still make sense, they still feel believable, because Weber is breaking MRU rules but adhering to MRU principles of syntax…) He didn’t remember lowering it, and now hers was up in full extension. He stared at her, seeing the wisps of smoke blowing from her muzzle in the breeze, (I think this is all Motivation for the next Reaction…) and bared his teeth in hatred. (Reflexive Action) Blood bubbled in his nostrils, his knees began to buckle, (Reflexive Actions, both) but somehow he stayed on his feet and slowly, grimly, fought to bring his gun up. (Rational Action)
Now we switch to the heroine’s POV at last, something I strongly discourage in a single scene, but Weber breaks this rule effectively too:
Motivation— Honor Harrington watched him over the sights of her pistol. She saw the hate on his face, the terrible realization of what had happened, the venomous determination as his pistol wavered up centimeter by agonized centimeter. It was coming up, rising toward firing position while he snarled at her (…yep, the small group of spectators see everything that Harrington sees)
Reaction— and there was no emotion at all in her brown eyes (Feeling) as her fifth bullet smashed squarely through the bridge of his nose. (Rational Action. And thus ends that chapter!)
Here’s a more subtle weaving of MRUs, from Carrie Vaughn, in which paragraph rules are broken but sequencing is not:
Motivation—The moment the nurse finished wrapping the cuts in an antiseptic gauze, Stanton appeared, gaze focused like laser beams. She didn’t get close, didn’t get in my face. Just stood there regarding me from the edge of the exam room. (It sometimes won’t get any more objective and external than this, when writing in deep POV)
Reaction— I felt like a bug in a petri dish. (A simple Feeling, a quick beat to connect the reader with the protagonist, but it’s the last sentence of the Motivation paragraph. It would be more powerful if it had stood alone as its own little paragraph, but perhaps Vaughn intentionally dialed that Reaction back, since the Motivation isn’t quite done…)
Motivation— “Feeling better, Ms. Newton?” she said. (Notice that Vaughn’s Motivations, when describing a person interacting with the protagonist, follow the same sequencing as a Reaction: the more-immediate first, the emotionally-evocative first, then action, then speech. Really, this is the most important part of Swain’s MRU idea, the rest are just helpful guidelines)
Reaction— “I’m fine, thanks.” (A terse Speech, but it connotes all sorts of internal Feeling and even some Reflexive Action/expression/posture that we’ve all seen in moody 14-year-old girls. Especially this character, whom the reader already knows is a master of sarcasm, and who has just suffered minor but painful road-rash injuries in a motorcycle accident)
Motivation— A long pause followed. (a Motivation can be lengthy, but it need not be. Vaughn has paired this brief Motivation with the following brief Reaction in a single paragraph, Motivation first, so it feels right)
Reaction— I could feel my own heart beating, faster than normal, nervous. (Feeling/Reflexive Action: the word “nervous” at the end doesn’t seem out of place because it describes the beating of her heart, it doesn’t blatantly interpret her emotion for us)
Motivation— “May I ask: How did you sabotage the security protocols?” (The reader knows Stanton well enough to hear the cold menace behind the polite mask)
Reaction— I picked at the gauze on my arm. “I didn’t sabotage them, I just… worked around them.” (Feeling is shown, not told, by the nervous picking, followed by Speech)
Motivation— “All right. How did you work around them?” (Untagged but evocative Speech: Stanton’s patience is wearing thin. This is not good for our protagonist!)
Reaction— They could find out how I did it by going over the computer network maintenance logs. They’d probably already done it. This wasn’t about finding out how I did it; it was about getting me to admit I’d done it. I talked faster than I was thinking, as if I could just say the right thing to make her understand. “It wasn’t that big a deal. I just went through the maintenance program to temporarily shut down power to the cameras. Didn’t touch security at all.” (Again Vaughn shows us the Feeling at first by letting us hear the train of Rational Thought and writing it in a way that feels “rushed.” But just to make sure we notice that, and that we correctly interpret that “rushed” feeling, Vaughn shows us a clever trick: she manages to “tell”—expositorily explain— what she’s just “shown” by using Polly Newton’s own inner self-analysis, letting Polly explain the assumptions and logic behind the mistake she’s about to make. One reason this works is that it is clearly in Polly’s “voice,” so that it is subjective, not objective: it isn’t the narrator telling us why Polly did this. But now the cat is out of the bag, and neither Polly nor her brother can ever use this clever trick again…)
Obviously, once you’ve gotten the hang of the MRU, you can play with the rules a bit. The more you have mastered it, the more confidently and effectively you can break the rules while still following their spirit and carrying the story along. In the words of Dwight Swain himself: “How do you least painfully achieve such mastery? The best way, I suspect, is to write in whatever manner comes easiest for you, paying no attention to any rules whatever. Then, go back over your copy and check to make sure that each reaction is motivated; that each motivating stimulus gets a reaction; and that ineptitude in use of language has not in any way confused the issue.” (Techniques of the Selling Writer, p.82)