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Clarification on Motivation-Reaction Units

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (November 10, 2010 at 3:56 pm)
. 1 comment. .

Today’s question comes from another Advanced Fiction Writing blog reader, Stacey, who wants to know when in the story do we begin using the Motivation-Reaction pattern. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept, Randy Ingermanson has a great overview of it in his article “Writing the Perfect Scene.”

As a review, the MRU is a way of describing the process of cause and effect that should characterize the movement of the story. Something happens in the story–either thought, dialogue, action, feeling, etc. (“Motivation”) and the character responds to it in either thought, word, or action (“Reaction”) which leads into something else happening (“Motivation”) that triggers another response (“Reaction”)–and so on through the story.

Stacey says:

I’m writing with a request to clarify the usage of motivation-reaction units (or rather the scene-sequel development) within novel writing. Specifically, I wanted to know if they begin from chapter one, page one, or if there’s some room for development of the setting using perhaps just subtle references to tension prior to the novel’s first major tipping point of drama.

Actually, Stacey, the concept of “scene-sequel” is different than MRU. Scene-Sequel pattern is the idea that a story alternates between active scenes (“Scenes”) and reactive scenes (“Sequels”). This pattern is actually becoming more of a dated idea as readers seem to want more active scenes and less scenes showing the character responding to what has happened–but that’s probably a post for another time.

What I think you are asking about is, as you initially stated, the Motivation-Reaction Unit. Must that cycle start on page one? Or can we develop the setting or other story elements before we start the actual drama of the story as long as we have subtle tension?

I think it’s important to not equate MRUs with TENSION. It is possible to write some perfectly accurate MRUs that have zero tension. The purpose of using the motivation-reaction unit pattern is to capture a more realistic, authentic flow of human behavior and for that behavior to make logical sense. That can lead to stronger tension if used properly, but by itself it is no guarantee of tension or conflict.

So, Stacey, I would say no–the motivation-reaction unit cycle does not have to begin on page one of your novel. However, the tension must. You mentioned opening the book with the setting. Many stories do this, but is it the most effective way of grabbing and maintaining the attention of your readers? Not unless you can establish right away why readers should care about the setting. Open your book with whatever will engage the readers the quickest and the strongest.

Sometimes, we try the opposite approach–starting in the middle of an action sequence or some sort of conflict. The problem with this is that just because it’s action or conflict doesn’t mean we have a reason to CARE about it yet.

So the main job of the opening of your novel is to make the reader care enough to keep reading. Do that however you like–there are no rules for how, only that you MUST. But as soon as you start working with character behavior or thinking, you need to shift into Motivation-Reaction Unit patterns immediately. That could be the first paragraph, or it could be top of page 2. But whatever you do, keep the tension simmering and building.

Thanks for the great question, Stacey!

Hey everyone, if you have a writing question, please feel free to ask it here at the Fiction Workbench or at Advanced Fiction Writing.

One response to “Clarification on Motivation-Reaction Units”

  1. Baruch says:

    I have been hearing about MRUs all over the place lately. I have a question. Most often the articles say it is best to separate the motivation from the reaction by a new paragraph, what about when the motivation is only one sentence? Would I still start a new paragraph?

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