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The secret to better writing . . .

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You’re not going to like this. You’re going to tell me this is the worst idea you’ve ever heard and it’s the antithesis of good writing.

But if you stop and think about what I’m about to say, and start trying to incorporate it in your writing, I promise you that you will see positive results.

So here it is : the idea you already hate (though you don’t even know it).

Motivation Reaction Units, developed by Dwight Swain.

First, you hate this because its weird technobabble that doesn’t mean anything to you.

Let me explain what it is.

Every scene should be composed of a series of these units. Each unit has three parts : objective stimulus, internal reaction of character, character’s response.


1. Objective stimulus :

She caught a glimpse of a large white tiger crouched in the grass ahead of her.

2. Internal reaction :

She felt her heart speeding up in response and sweat forming on her brow. At last! Her prey in sight!

3. Character’s response, typically with some rational words and action :

“I’ve got you now,” she whispered, raising her gun slowly until she had the animal in her sights. She wrapped her finger around the trigger and squeezed.

Your entire scene should be a series of these.

Ok, now that you know what it is, you hate MRUs for a new reason : because this sounds like some horrible formulaic approach to writing.

But it’s not. It does everything needed to get the reader into the action. It shows the objects in the character’s world; it shows the characters mental response; and it shows a reaction. Much amateur fiction that I read is missing at least one of these elements, which is what keeps it from being zingy or fast paced or absorbing.

With this idea in mind, I decided to look at Trees again – and right away I can see so many places where I’ve flat out failed to include any indication of the MC’s internal responses to what’s going on. If I never show the MC having emotions, well, no wonder the story comes off a bit cold.

So. I think this is a good idea. As with all writing “rules,” you should always remember that there are no hard and fast rules.

But take a scene that isn’t working for you and try rewriting it with the goal of creating nothing but a series of motivational reaction units and you’ll find that it goes more smoothly and grabs interest more easily.

Go on. Give it a try.

Next up : Two types of scenes


About cjsand

Writing twisted fiction

2 responses »

  1. Sounds like great advice! It makes a lot of sense.

    FWIW, I got the feeling from Trees that the MC was feeling detached and alienated from the alternate world, which I thought was part of the storytelling.

  2. naw i’m just terrible at writing in emotion – something I need to think about —- maybe because I’m too out of touch with my own?


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