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Writing Tips: Scene Construction Using Motivation Reaction Units

In my previous submission, I championed book construction using Scene and Sequel; this week I will take it one step further by advocating Dwight Swain’s concept of Motivation Reaction Units (MR Units) to writing a series of perfect paragraphs within each Scene and Sequel.

Motivation is an external and objective stimulus, and it is something that the protagonist can see (or hear or smell or taste or touch). I try to write this in such a way that my reader also sees it (or hears it or smells it or tastes it or touches it). I then start a new paragraph in which my protagonist does one or more things in Reaction to the Motivation stimulus.

MOTIVATION

Motivation is an external and objective stimulus, something that not only the protagonist can see and hear and touch, but which any other observer could also see and hear and touch, if they were there. Using a single paragraph, I pick my motivating stimulus carefully. It should be significant to my character -- my protagonist’s personality and/or goal will influence what she notices around her. Motivation should also be pertinent for the plotline -- readers assume that every stimulus is significant. Finally, I ensure that the motivating stimulus requires my character's immediate action.

Here is a simple example:

The buffalo burst from the underbrush, red eyes gleaming as it charged toward Nick and his son.

Note the key points here. Motivation is objective, presented as it would be shown by a video camera. Nothing here indicates that we are in Nick's point of view. That comes in the Reaction, but the Motivation should be simple, crisp, and clean.

REACTION

The Reaction is internal and subjective, exactly as my protagonist would experience it -- from the inside. This is my chance to let my reader be inside my protagonist’s head and body, experience my protagonist’s emotions, feel my protagonist’s sensations.

To avoid confusing the reader, I separate the Reaction from the Motivation by placing it in its own paragraph (or sequence of paragraphs).

Being internal, the Reaction is more complex than the Motivation, and is based on physiologically possibilities. Internal processes occur in an exact sequence. For example, when I see a charging buffalo, fear rushes in within a millisecond. A few tenths of a second later, I may experience an instinctive or reflexive action, but the conscious part of my brain still hasn’t engaged. But shortly after that first reflexive reaction, I will also have time to react rationally, to act, to think, to speak. As a writer, my challenge is to present the full complex of my protagonist’s reactions in this order, from fastest time-scale to slowest. If I put them out of order, then things just don't feel right. I destroy the illusion of reality.

Here is a simple example:

A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Nick's veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the buffalo's heart, and squeezed the trigger. "Run," he shouted to his son.

Each Reaction consists of some or all of the following three parts:
1. Feeling: A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Nick's veins. I show this first, because it happens almost instantly.
2. Reflex: He jerked his rifle to his shoulder . . . I show this second, as a result of the fear. An instinctive result that requires no conscious thought. In times of danger, the standard reflexes are fight, flight, or freeze.
3. Rational Action and Speech: . . . sighted on the buffalo's heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Run,” he shouted to his son. I put this last, when Nick has had time to think and act in a rational way. He pulls the trigger, a rational response to the danger. He shouts to warn his son, a rational expression of his intense emotional reaction.

It is legitimate to leave out one or two of these three parts, while retaining the correct sequence for those I choose to use. The important thing is to keep at least one, or there will be no Reaction.

Here’s the thing. One internal Reaction leads to a new Motivation that is again external and objective and which occupies its own paragraph. And again. And again. And so on. I alternate between what my protagonist sees (the Motivation) and what she does (the Reaction). The important thing is to keep the alternating pattern throughout the book, creating an interconnection of Motivation Reaction Units until I reach the end of the manuscript.

Tags: Fisher, Maureen, tips, writing

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