Today I will continue my discussion of Motivation/Reaction Units (MRUs). As I mentioned last week, these units are cause-and-effect sequences in a story that show a cycle of cause (motivation), then effect (reaction), which becomes the cause for the next effect and so on.
Like dominoes falling in a line, your story should be a long series of MRUs. Every action, whether physical, spoken, or thought should be a reaction to something that happened in the previous sentence or paragraph, and that reaction transforms into the motivation for the next reaction.
Let’s look at an excerpt from Reapers to illustrate. Comments are in bold.
Molly choked on the pills and coughed them up (Reaction to family trying to force feed the pills, not shown). Her body stiffened, and she let out a moan (Reaction to not taking the medicine). While the three patted her hands and stroked her head in futility (Reaction to her moan), I swallowed hard. Even after more than three years as a Reaper, the sight of a dying child still tore a hole in my heart. (Reaction to all of the above)
My cloak vibrated, sending hot prickles across my arms. (A Reaper’s reaction to impending death.) The end was near. Only one hope remained—the syringe. (The impending death sparks an idea, which is a reaction)
As I reached into my pocket (Reaction to thinking about the syringe), the rusty hinges at the front door squeaked. Everyone froze. Fiona whispered, “I heard no knock.” (Reactions to the door squeaking)
Colm shoved the pill bottle into his pocket. Fiona and Colleen rose and backed away from the bed, their eyes wide with fear. (Reactions to someone coming in the door.) Molly’s body loosened, and she breathed in gasping spasms.
The bedroom door swung open. (A new action that has no apparent motivation, but we find out later why she has come.) A tall woman dressed in black leather stepped in and scanned the room. Piercing gray eyes set beneath a somber brow gave her the aspect of a bird of prey searching for a victim. With youthful face, trim body, and blonde hair draped over her shoulders, she looked nothing like the steroid-jacked male officer who normally patrolled at night. Yet, the leather pants and jacket with a Gateway insignia on the left breast pocket confirmed her status as a death officer of some kind. (Phoenix’s observations are a reaction to her entry.)
Her shifting gaze halted at Molly. “A young one,” she said in a low monotone. “My condolences.” (The woman’s reactions to Molly’s travail)
I withdrew my hand from my pocket (Reaction to the woman coming in. He can’t show the syringe now.) and, forcing an emotionally detached countenance, crouched next to the bed. “She’s still alive, though the end is near.” (Reaction to her words. He has to go into Reaper mode.)
“Quite near.” (Reaction to Phoenix’s words) The officer sat on the bed and stroked Molly’s hair. Her hand trembled as her fingers passed over the little girl’s locks again and again. “Such a beautiful princess. She will be a glittering star in the heavens. I am looking forward to seeing her drawn away from this broken shell so she can be set free to brighten the skies.” (The woman’s further reactions to Molly’s impending death.)
The family’s terrified expressions shouted urgency. (Family’s reaction to the woman’s actions) Somehow I had to get rid of this officer so we could try to save Molly. (Phoenix’s reaction to the woman’s actions.)
I touched the officer’s arm. “Because of this child’s age and the high potential for extraction pangs, the reaping will cause an emotional upheaval, so if you wouldn’t mind sitting in the front room, I will withdraw her soul in private and call you when—” (Phoenix’s action/reaction to what the woman is doing.)
“Heightened emotions are normal and expected.” She unzipped her jacket, revealing a form-fitting white T-shirt and a gun in a shoulder holster. “Pain is normal. Weeping is a necessary catharsis.” (The woman’s reactions to Phoenix’s actions.)
I drew back. “I suppose that’s true, but—” (Phoenix’s reaction to seeing the gun)
“My name is Alex.” She extended her hand, though her expression remained stern. “And you’re Phoenix.” (Alex’s reaction to Phoenix’s sudden fear.)
“That’s right.” I shook her hand, again not bothering to ask how a stranger knew my name. “I guess you’re not familiar with customary reaping procedures. Since the family requests privacy …” (Phoenix’s reactions to Alex extending her hand.)
“Familiar?” Anger flickered in her eyes. (Alex’s reaction to Phoenix’s words) “I attended reapings before you were born, and I have followed your career ever since—” Her brow furrowing (Here we see Alex’s reaction to finding a pill before seeing the motivation for it, because she is not the POV character. Phoenix, who is the POV character, sees the furrowed brow before he notices why her brow furrows, so this is in the proper order), she picked up a pill from the mattress. “What is this?”
“Candy,” I said without hesitating. “I always bring some when a dying child has siblings. Molly has two sisters.” (Phoenix’s reaction to Alex’s discovery of the pill.)
And the MRUs continue occurring like falling dominoes. Everything happens for a reason, and when the units come in an unbroken series, readers feel like they are in the room while events are happening. Readers are never “out of the loop.”
This concept can be difficult to master, but it is one that will revolutionize your writing. If you have questions or comments, please post them.
Categories: Writing Tips