Structuring your novel’s big picture is important. The structure of your scenes all the way down to your character’s motivations and reactions are equally important. If you get the sequence out of order, you risk confusing or completely disengaging your reader. Don’t worry. You can create compelling scenes with the MRU. The motivation-reaction unit (MRU) is a tool introduced by Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. This post is only an introduction to the MRU. In his book, Mr. Swain does a deep dive into the MRU and other tools writers can use to be a selling writer.
"A story is a series of motivation-reaction units. The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain.
In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain uses his understanding of the pattern of emotion (how people’s brains work) to create a guideline for writing fiction. He calls it the motivation-reaction unit (MRU) and breaks it down into parts.
At its simplest, the MRU is—
In the book, Mr. Swain talks about each part of the MRU in great detail. Read it to get a deeper understanding of the MRU. He also discusses what story is, story structure, character, conflict, and ways to be a successful professional writer.
People react to a stimulus predictably. There are simple responses, more detailed responses and complex responses. What we think varies. What we feel varies. What we do and say varies. But each of our brains reacts to a stimulus in the same pattern.
A stimulus is something that directly rouses a reaction or activity. We pick up stimuli with one of our senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste. Neurons in your brain process the stimulus and cause a sequence of responses. The blink of an eye is one reflex that happens instantly. Some responses we learned at an early age— don’t touch the hot stove. We gain some after repeated experiences, and some responses need to be processed on a higher level of thought that might take hours to months.
A reflex is your body’s simplest response. A dangerous stimulus causes an immediate motor response.
Stimulus: Something flies toward your eye.
Response: You blink without a conscious thought.
The more complicated the stimuli, the more complicated your response. Your brain processes this in nanoseconds and your body responds in seconds or minutes.
Stimulus: You feel the pain of a bee stinging you.
Reaction: You want to stop the pain, slap at the bee, and yell.
Some stimuli, particularly social ones, are far more complex and trigger a complex response.
Stimulus: Your ex-husband confronts you at a public event and loudly demands that you admit your much loved, recently departed, second husband abused you.
Reaction: Confused and hurt, you play the words in your head again,. You knot your hands into fists. You politely deny the accusation and you excuse yourself from the uncomfortable situation. Later, you replay the scene in your head; you remember similar conversations with your ex, and your suppressed anger boils. You curse loudly and deface your ex’s expensive car.
Motivation always comes before reaction. But what motivation is Mr. Swain talking about? He’s not talking about the motivation to pick up a coffee mug or sniff a flower on your morning walk. He refines the term motivation to motivating stimulus. A motivating stimulus is “anything outside your focal character to which he reacts.” The important word in that definition is “outside.” It’s not a thought or worry. Those may be part of a scene’s sequel, but the motivating stimulus comes from outside—another character’s presence or actions, the weather, or the situation.
To be an effective motivating stimulus, it must be something that is significant to your focal character. It must be significant enough that it demands your focal character react actively. Because of her personality or needs, or wants, she must act.
The best motivating stimulus is also pertinent to your story. The writer selects a stimulus that sets up the change you want your focal character to experience. It is a change in your focal character’s external world. This change stimulates the focal character to change his internal thoughts or ways of doing things.
The stimulus also must make sense to your reader. You will jerk your reader out of the story if your focal character has hated guns from the beginning and in chapter twenty, she picks up a gun and shoots accurately.
If your motivating stimulus doesn’t do all these things, your story or scene will be less effective and possibly be the place your reader puts it down, never to pick it up again.
Your character’s reaction is anything your character feels, says, or thinks because of the motivating stimulus.
Mr. Swain breaks the Reaction portion of the MRU down into three parts: feeling, action, and speech. This is the order in which they should appear on the page in order for your reader to process the story. Below is the M-R from the reaping scene in The Hunger Games.
Effie Trinket announces Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is the next participant in a deadly competition.
Shocked, Katniss stands rooted to the spot and watches her sister move forward. She follows her sister. She shouts Prim’s name over and over. Then, realizing Prim will never survive the “game,” Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
Like the Motivating Stimulus, the Reaction must be significant, pertinent, and motive. It also must be characteristic and reasonable.
The reaction is significant when it creates the character change and moves the story forward in a way that you, the writer, intended. We see that in the reaping scene from The Hunger Games.
Mr Swain uses the term motive to describe a character doing something. The character’s reaction is motive if it is active, particularly if it leads to more change. The reader expects that Katniss’s reaction of volunteering as tribute will change her life.
A characteristic reaction is typical behavior of your focal character. It can be unexpected or stronger than usual, but it is in keeping with the character’s personality. It should be a reasonable response to the stimulus. In The Hunger Games, the reader knows Katniss is protective of her sister and accepts Katniss volunteering as characteristic.
Consider a motivation-reaction unit where your mild-mannered character, a middle-aged woman, receives a blackmail note. Your character’s reaction is to confront her daughter and to demand if the photo is of her. Then your character shakes and cries and wrings her hands and you learn she’d received the blackmail note with a lewd picture of her daughter. She doesn’t have that much money. Maybe the photo isn’t of her daughter. But it won’t matter if once it’s on the internet everyone thinks it’s her daughter.
Confused? Yeah. When the writer reveals motivation and reaction randomly, it’s hard to follow.
Rewind that scene, this time we’ll use the motivation-reaction unit.
Your middle-aged female character receives a blackmail note with a lewd photo of her college-age daughter. The note demands $100,000 or the pictures will go viral on the internet.
Feeling: She can’t believe it’s her daughter. She realizes even if it isn’t her daughter, once it’s on the internet, her daughter won’t be able to get a job. Your character puts her hand to her mouth. She doesn’t have that much money. She shakes and cries and wrings her hands. Then she decides to drive to her daughter’s college.
Action: She meets her daughter and shows her daughter the picture.
Speech. She asks her daughter, “Is this you?”
Make your MRUs paragraphs long, a single paragraph, or even shorter. Show your character’s reaction in a reflex: She ducks, avoiding being hit by the baseball bat. In the example above, you can use the same motivation stimulus and make it short.
She receives a lewd photo and blackmail note.
Feeling: She can’t believe it’s her daughter.
Action: She puts her hand to her mouth.
Speech: “It won’t matter if it isn’t her. Future employers will believe it is.”
An MRU can show a reflex.
She receives a lewd photo and blackmail note.
With a clear motivating stimulus, your character can react with as much feeling, action, and speech as is appropriate for that character and situation. Using the motivation-reaction unit follows the same pattern your brain does. That pattern helps you write a story that makes sense to the reader, that compels the reader to keep reading.
Once you understand it, you can create compelling scenes with the MRU. With practice, you will vary the shape, texture, and color of the MRUs within your story. And the scenes you write will have an energy that carries your reader to the next page and the next until they reach the end.
Have you heard of the MRU before? What have you written (read, or watched) that uses the MRU?
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Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though they all appear in her books. She writes action-filled science fiction with characters who discover their inner strength and determination, and make courageous choices for themselves, their family, and their world.
In Book One of the Fellowship Dystopia, My Soul to Keep, Miranda Clarke lived a charmed life… until she breaks the rules. But it is 1961 and America’s a theocracy. Following the rules isn’t optional. In the recently released book two, If I Should Die, Miranda, the former “good daughter” of the Fellowship, has transformed into a hero of the rebellion but now she faces the question, what do you do when the other side doesn’t want to listen. Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. When she’s not procrastinating by not doing housework and playing with her dogs, she’s blogging or writing or researching her next book. You can find Lynette online at https://lynettemburrows.com, Facebook.com/LynetteMBurrowsAuthor, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.
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This is fascinating. Thanks, Lynette!
You're welcome, Karen. I hope it's helpful on your writing journey.
Your post is is going to be very helpful to me. The novel I am writing has three parallel stories that come together right after midpoint. With several characters in each story I get overwhelmed with the characters feelings, actions, and speech. Thank you, Lynette.
Your story sounds fascinating, Mary. I'm glad the MRU can help you with it.
This is the first time I've read anything about MRU. It's an interesting way to look at scene structure.
I'm glad you found it interesting, Ellen. I'm not surprised many haven't heard about it. Swain first published through the University of Oklahoma Press in 1965. I had the good fortune to hear him speak and meet him in 1986. In my opinion, he should get more attention for his books.
I've never seen it broken down this way before. This is a great tool I will be using in the future.
Thanks, Bob. I hope you'll find it as useful as I do.
Margie explained this to me at one point. I've found it very helpful in structure and understanding how the books come together. Thank you for sharing this so well!
Thank you, Deleyna. I'm not surprised that Margie knows about this. Many of her teachings reinforce the idea of feeling-action-speech.
Thanks for those reminders from Swain and the examples. I'd forgotten the specifics of this method.
You're welcome, Jacquolyn..
Very intriguing. I like it. Will try it.
I think you'll find it very useful. I'm happy to be a resource if you need it.
This is a fascinating way to look at story. I really need to open my Dwight Swain and give it a read... Thank you for sharing, and for inspiring us!