Motivation-Reaction Unit

 

The basic building block of prose. Despite being decades old, Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction technique is still relevant. Every time something feels off in the prose, the improperly constructed MRU is usually to blame.

What is a Motivation-Reaction Unit?

MRU’s are the small blocks of actions and reactions that make up a character’s story. These are the moment to moment interactions, thoughts, and lines of dialogue that make up any scene. When a character stubs his toe and then shouts in pain. This is a motivation-reaction unit.

There must be a logical progression to a character’s thoughts and reactions.

Switching the order of an MRU creates confusion and distance for the reader.

Consider the psychic MC who always reaches the conclusion before the evidence is presented. I see this so often it’s become my personal nemesis.

The intruders had gotten what they came for. Books lay scattered across the floor. My brand-new sofa was shredded. Shattered glass fanned out from beneath my son’s portrait. On the wall, the door of the safe hung open. The contents, gone.

In this example, the MC is psychic. She knew the thieves had stolen her documents before she saw the empty safe. Since we don’t experience the process of gathering evidence and reaching a conclusion at the same time as the MC, the author creates distance from the action. The second problem with putting these elements out of order is that the reader doesn’t feel obligated to read the description. We already have the answer.

Now, I will move the first sentence to the end. Notice how it changes the entire feel of the paragraph.

Books lay scattered across the floor. My brand-new sofa was shredded. Shattered glass fanned out from beneath my son’s portrait. On the wall, the door of the safe hung open. The contents, gone. The intruders had gotten what they came for.

By discovering what the MC experiences, in the order she experiences it, we feel more connected to her. We feel like we are living her story.

The second major problem I see with MRU’s is a missing component.

‘Talking heads’ being the worst offender, but an emotionless MC runs a close second. In order to fix this, we need to know what goes into an MRU.

How to create a properly constructed MRU

Motivation Reaction Unit

MRU’s are simply input/output cycles. Characters take in information via their five senses (Motivation) then the characters process that information and output a response. (Reaction)

In Swain’s original model the reaction consists of three parts in this order:

  1. Feeling
  2. Action
  3. Speech

Feeling

In this model, feeling encompasses visceral and other involuntary responses. In other words, a reaction that your character didn’t have to think about.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose. I shudder.

Shudder counts as feeling. It’s an involuntary response. While her feeling of revulsion is not explicitly stated, the physical reaction shows the emotion.

Action

Next, we move to action

There are two kinds of action: mental and physical

Mental Action

Here’s where internal thoughts happen, where your character thinks through new information by:

  1. Adding it to current knowledge. This is where you sprinkle in whatever backstory is needed to understand the current conflict.
  2. Analyzing this information. This is where your MC thinks through a problem.
  3. Reaching a conclusion This is where your MC decides on a course of action.

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this, I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

Physical Action

Physical movements your MC does in response to a motivation

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick.

Speech

Last is speech

“This all they have?”

Swain insists the three components of a reaction should remain in this order: feeling, action, and then speech. Let’s look at the previous example in Swain’s recommended order and then again in a different order.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.I shudder.

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick. “This all they have?”

Compare that to an example that is out of order

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

“This all they have?”

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick and shudder.

Notice how the second example feels off. It doesn’t make sense for her to ask for something else until after she has decided she can’t eat the sushi.

Do you need all the components?

No. You don’t need to have every component in every MRU. Often there is no need for both physical and mental actions, and trying to have both in every MRU will slow your pacing. You can also leave out elements for specific effects: a terse conversation or an action-packed fight scene.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

I shudder.

“This all they have?”

But if you remove too many components, the prose starts to feel clipped.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

“This all they have?”

Without the feeling or the action, the prose feels thin. The characterization is missing, and the MC starts to sound robotic. If you need to fill out your MRU’s focus on feeling first, particularly in scenes with less action. This will give your readers more opportunities to connect with your character. Then, focus on action when you need a faster pace and more excitement.

Practice building your scenes using Swain’s MRU’s. Look for places where your reactions and motivations are out of order or are missing components. Complete MRU’s will provide solid building blocks for your scenes and create meaningful experiences for your readers, allowing them to connect with your character by seeing the world through her eyes.

motivation reaction cheatsheet

A link to the original book. (not affiliate)

 

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