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Create Compelling Scenes with the MRU
Image of a white clay person holding the silver ball at the end of a string of kinetic balls, ready to release it and make the other balls react representing how you can create compelling scenes with the MRU.

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.

What is the MRU?

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—

a.) Motivation.

b.) Reaction.

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. 

How Your Brain Reacts to Stimuli 

Situated below the title Create compelling scenes with the MRU is an mage of a woman's head in profile with a gold drawing of the brain, spine, and spinal cord with a confusion of geographical and wavy connections in the brain and head. Plus a bombardment of gold dots shooting toward the head and representing input our brains receive.

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.

Simplest Stimulus and Response

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. 

More Complicated Stimulus and Response

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. 

Complex Stimuli and Response

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. 

How to Create an Effective Motivation

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.  

Motivating Stimulus

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. 

The R (Reaction) in MRU

Image of a white clay person pushing the first in a long line of Dominoes over to start a chain reaction much like you can create compelling scenes with the MRU.

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.

Motivating Stimulus:

Effie Trinket announces Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is the next participant in a deadly competition. 

Reaction:

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.

How to Create an Effective Reaction

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. 

Why use MRUs in your Writing?

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.

Motivating Stimulus:

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.

Reaction:

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?”

How Long is an MRU?

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.

Motivating Stimulus:

She receives a lewd photo and blackmail note. 

Reaction:

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.” 

OR

An MRU can show a reflex.

Motivating Stimulus:

She receives a lewd photo and blackmail note. 

Reaction:

Feeling: Shock

Action: Recoil

Speech:Gasp

Create Compelling Scenes with the MRU

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?

About Lynette

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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Writing a Compelling First Line

by Ellen Buikema

Character, voice, conflict, and some of the setting is a lot to get in upfront, but this is where to hook your readers with a compelling first line.

Recently, I attended a webinar where writers submitted their first lines for review by an editor. The editor was straightforward and no-nonsense. She gave several suggestions to help make the first lines better.

I reviewed the first lines I submitted after the webinar ended, keeping in mind all that was said. The more recent manuscript had a reasonably good first line. But the other one, written a few years ago and set aside...good grief. That first line is a sad wispy creature in need of beefing up.

Below are some of the suggestions I gleaned, all of which I plan to use.

3 Must-Have First Line Elements

Character

Great first lines weave an interesting character. An important rule of writing is to bring out your character and the situation right away. If your main characters are intriguing, the readers will keep turning those pages to find out what they do next.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

This next first line gives a lot of information. The narrator is likely an angsty teenager who is well read and somewhat cynical.  

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Voice

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” –1984 George Orwell

George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, presents a dystopian setting with the use of clocks “striking thirteen,” showing the readers that the story happens in a world with different rules.

Think about the first line as a close up to the action. If you’re stuck for a first line, fast forward five minutes into the story and write the first sentence from that perspective. This first line feels like it’s starting smack in the middle of the action.

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” — The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Tone

The tone of the first line gives the reader a sense of genre and the age group for which the book is meant. “The green cigarette smoke thwacked Ashley’s brain through the bandages of a broken nose.” A first line that mentions green cigarette smoke fits fantasy, perhaps science fiction, and hints at YA or older readers.

A short first line can be as good as a lengthy one. It may not include a lot of detail, but can pack a mighty punch. Here, the main character is already in a hot mess. “I’m pretty much fucked.”

The Martian, Andy Weir

Further Reading: here are some great opening lines in literature.

Other suggestions from the editor

  • Don’t have too many things happening in the sentence.
  • Boring is bad.
    • Forget the mundane and make the first line interesting.
    • Instead of focusing on looking inside a refrigerator concentrate on what’s in it and why.
  • Steer clear of passive construction and purple prose—overwritten.
  • Be personal, specific.
  • Get rid of parenthetical phrases.
  • Include a character to connect with the reader otherwise it’s hard to get invested in the story.
  • Beware of redundancies such as back-to-back prepositional phrases.
    • If it’s 4 AM and early morning, we already know that 4 AM is early.
    • Don’t wake up in the first line. Waking up isn’t interesting.
  • Too many facial expressions as these are awkward.
  • Avoid cliches and exclamation points.
  • Don’t write a first line that gives the reader an excuse to put down your book such as, “If you are proper, strait-laced person, stop reading this book.” Even if you’re writing this line to be funny, it may not come off that way.

Instead of writing your opening line with reams of gorgeous sentences about the landscape and the character’s backstory, dig into a scene that starts with a bang, beginning with a compelling first line.

What are your favorite first lines? How do you like to start your stories? Please share your insights with us -- including your first line if you wish -- below in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

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Writing Believable Driveway Crime: Carjacking & Kidnapping

by Piper Bayard of Bayard & Holmes

For those of us who write espionage or crime novels, knowledge of crime is essential. My writing partner, Jay Holmes, is a 45+ year veteran of field intelligence operations, and he has learned a thing or two about criminal activities over the years. Since many crimes that occur in real life and in fiction happen in driveways, today we will be addressing two of the most common driveway crimes–carjacking and kidnapping.


Carjacking

Carjacking is a crime that has always been popular, but the crime has skyrocketed since Covid. For example, Chicago reported over 1800 carjackings last year.

In most cities, the arrest rate of carjackers is extremely low. Again to pick on Chicago, less than 5% of their carjackers are ever charged with the crime, so unless the victim shoots the carjacker, carjacking is a low-risk crime with high rewards. Because the arrest and conviction rate is so dismal, the biggest threat to carjackers is picking the wrong victim.

Intriguing Facts About Carjacking

Carjackers often work in teams. One of the most common places for them to strike is in the car owner’s driveway, and the most common time for a carjacking is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Increasingly, these teams involve children, some of them as young as ten years old. In DC, a 12-year-old was arrested and charged with four carjackings. An entire carjacking gang could be teenagers and pre-teens, so involving youth in this crime in books would be quite realistic fiction.

Carjacker’s Approach

Most carjackers target random cars that present opportunities at intersections and gas stations. In contrast, if they are looking in a neighborhood, they likely will have cased that neighborhood and made notes of the comings and goings of the residents.

Carjackers are most likely to target a vehicle at a home with good hiding places near the driveway, such as shrubs, trees, or other cars, preferably with no security cameras or motion-sensing lights in the area.

Plenty of good places to hide.

Once the driver opens the car door, they are most vulnerable when they have one foot in the car and one foot out on the ground as they are entering or exiting the vehicle. That is the sweet spot for a carjacker.

The carjacker can then rush forward, slam the driver’s leg in the door, grab them, and throw them hard to the ground.

If the keys are in the driver’s hand, the carjacker can easily grab them. If the driver has a keyless fob, the carjacker can grab their purse or make a quick search of pockets to find it.

If the carjacker slams the driver in the door and then throws them to the ground, the carjacker will want to do this so hard that the driver is too hurt and/or stunned to fight back. On the downside, when carjackers do this, keys can fly in any direction.

Writing a Plausible Carjacking Scene

When writing such scenes, this is a great opportunity to create a problem for an antagonist if they don’t see where the keys go. It could also give a bright protagonist an opportunity to throw their keys, making it difficult for the carjacker to accomplish their goal.

Though it is sometimes seen in fiction, it is rare that a carjacker would hide in a backseat and wait for the driver to get into the car. Most carjackers target random cars because they want . . . a car.

If they wait in a car for a person to get in, they then have a person and a car. The carjacker must then kidnap the person, creating its own set of problems. Plus, they have to then figure out how to get the driver out of the car. One way would be to order them out at knifepoint or gunpoint. Most people will get out of a car when threatened that way, leaving the car to the carjacker.

If the carjacker just wants a car, there are easier ways.


Car Owner’s Defenses

All of a car owner’s best defenses happen before they ever get near the car. See nine steps you can take for greater driveway safety.

Don't be this soft target.
  1. Clear away any good hiding places near the driveway.
  2. Install good lighting in the driveway. Any kind of lighting will do.
  3. If the driver parks in the garage, keep the garage clean so that no one can easily hide in it.
  4. Scan the front yard and driveway for anything amiss while still in the safety of the doorway or, if just pulling in, in the safety of the car.
  5. Pay extra attention when approaching the car while holding packages, children, or anything that keeps your hands occupied.
  6. If exiting the vehicle with packages, look around first, then get out and look around again before reaching into the car for the packages. Remember that it is better to make multiple trips than to be incapacitated by being overloaded.
  7. Do not text or talk on the phone between the doorway and the vehicle.
  8. Keep your purse strapped across the body, making it more difficult for a carjacker to grab it with the key fob inside.
  9. If expecting trouble, have a weapon in hand and be ready to use it. To do this without freaking out the neighbors, hold it inside a loose pocket or drape a sweater over the hand.

Preventative measures to avoid an attack are always the best defense against carjacking and other crimes in the driveway.


Kidnapping

The most common way to pull off a snatch, or kidnapping, is for a team of assailants to pull up in a panel van and quickly grab the target off the street. This can be accomplished in seconds. However, a snatch from a driveway is also a viable option.

As a general rule, kidnappers work in teams of at least two and rarely more than three. If they are smart, one of their team is a woman, because women are disarming for most people.

Kidnapper’s Approach

If a kidnapping team is going to make a snatch in a driveway, they will likely have a woman who looks harmless to approach the target and an armed partner to subdue the target. They will also probably have a third person to drive the getaway vehicle.

This little old lady doesn't stand a chance.

The woman on the team would, like the carjacker, approach when the driver has the door open but has not yet stepped into the vehicle. She would come up the driveway with a story about a lost child, misdelivered mail, or some other normal reason to approach a neighbor. Meanwhile, the partner is hiding nearby around the edge of the house, in some bushes, on the other side of the car, etc.

When the driver is distracted by the woman, the partner rushes up, tasers or otherwise subdues the target, and tosses them in the car. The woman jumps in with them, and they drive the target’s car a couple blocks away to the getaway vehicle. While driving, they drug the target. Then they park the target’s car, make the transfer, and make their escape.

It is also possible that a kidnapper would wait in the back seat of a car until the target gets in. This is far less common, and they would most likely be someone who is working alone.


Driver’s Defenses

Again, the best defenses are those listed above. By the time someone is in a vehicle with a kidnapper, there are not many options left to them. However, “not many” is not the same as “nothing.”

Kubatons by Kantas Products Co., LTD

1. Carry pepper spray and/or have it handy in the car.

The downside of this is that one must be very careful where they spray it, or they could hurt themselves more than the attacker.

2. Carry a perfume spray bottle with ammonia.

Again, one must be careful where they spray it, but on the upside, such a thing in a car or a purse will likely go undetected and unchallenged in areas with strict weapons control.

3. Carry a kubaton keychain to assist in a fight.

4. Make a fist with a key protruding forward between the fingers and punch the attacker in the eyes, throat, groin, or anywhere else that presents itself.

If the attacker is in the front or the back with the target, the target can punch for the attacker’s throat with the near hand, and when the attacker blocks, jab them in the groin with the other hand. A key between the fingers with that jab could do some real damage. A word of caution, though. Do not use the car key for this move. It could break off, and then it’s real trouble.

5. If possible, get out and run.

This may seem like it should have been at the top of the list, but it isn’t because sometimes, a car is blocked in a secluded location, or the surrounding threats are worse than what’s happening in the vehicle.

Pro Tip:

If someone is in your car and running is an option, the target should run toward the back of the car if possible, especially if the assailant has a firearm. The assailant would have to turn around to shoot the target and they would probably miss. Even if they hit the target, the person would most likely survive. Few people actually shoot like my writing partner.

Final Thoughts

If a person is approached by an armed assailant and told to get in the car, whether in the driveway or any other location, the target should always run, fight, or both, even if the assailant has a firearm. That is because inevitably, whatever the attacker would do once the target got in the car would be far worse than what they would do in a driveway.

Any questions about carjacking or kidnapping in the driveway? What about other crimes that can occur in the driveway? Are there other crime locations you would like us to address?

About Piper

Piper Bayard is an author and recovering attorney who works with 45+ year veteran of field intelligence operations, Jay Holmes. Their first full-length fiction release, The Leopard of Cairo, is now available in both eBook and Print at Bayard & Holmes.

About Leopard of Cairo

John Viera left his CIA fieldwork hoping for a “normal” occupation and a long-awaited family, but when a Pakistani engineer is kidnapped from a top-secret US project and diplomatic entanglements tie the government’s hands, the Intelligence Community turns to John and his team of ex-operatives to investigate — strictly off the books. They uncover a plot of unprecedented magnitude that will precipitate the slaughter of millions.

From the corporate skyscrapers of Montreal to the treacherous alleys of Baluchistan, these formidable enemies strike, determined to create a regional apocalypse and permanently alter the balance of world power. Isolated in their knowledge of the impending devastation, John and his network stand alone between total destruction and the Leopard of Cairo.

What People Are Saying About Leopard of Cairo

“A lightning-fast tale of intrigue, lies, and the mother-of-all terrorist plots. Big story, big adventure, big thumbs up!"

~ JAMES ROLLINS, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Sigma Force Series

Top Image by TRƯƠNG QUÂN from Pixabay

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