(This post was originally featured on Laura Heffernan's blog, here.)
Hello lovely writers! I’m here today to talk about motivation-reaction units.
“What the what?” You say. “I’ve heard about plot and pacing and world building and character development, but what is this motivation-reaction witchcraft you speak of?”
Well. I’m so glad you asked.
Have you ever had a scene with a big reveal or shock or scare, but once your big bang happened, things just felt sort-of off? If so, there’s a good chance your motivation-reaction units need looking at.
At it’s core, a motivation-reaction unit, or MRU, just means that when something happens, there’s a motivation (a stimulus) and a reaction (how the characters react to the stimulus). We have Dwight V. Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer to thank for identifying this little nugget of knowledge we call the MRU.
The motivation part is pretty easy. Something crazy happens. Done.
Problems often arise, however, in the reaction part of the MRU. When something crazy/scary/shocking happens, humans react in several ways. These feelings happen in such quick succession, that it’s often hard to separate them out, but they are all different parts of a reaction. And they happen in this order:
1: There’s an unconscious internal reaction—a feeling
Nervous. Happy. Terrified.
2: There’s an unconscious physical reaction—a reflex in response to how we are feeling
We gasp. Our palms start to sweat. Our blood rushes to our face. We freeze in place.
3: Then there are conscious physical reactions—what we say (if anything) and what we do.
“I can’t believe you forgot my birthday,” and the character starts to cry.
“I can’t believe she wore socks with her Chacos,” and then the mean girls blast a picture out on Instagram.
Or, if the motivation is a rabid werewolf apparition, a la ghostbusters, the physical reaction will just be to run.
Now, all of these things happen in our reactions, but you don’t need to list every single thing in a character’s reaction every time there’s a motivation in your book. Actually, please don’t. If you do, it will clog up the flow and slow the pacing way down. It’s okay to let the reader imagine one of more parts of the character’s reaction when something happens in your story. But in pivotal scenes, when the tension is high, the reaction you include on the page should contain more than one of the three parts above.
And—here’s where many beginner writers go wrong—THE REACTIONS MUST BE IN THE RIGHT ORDER, and THEY MUST COME AFTER THE MOTIVATION!
We never react to a stimulus before feeling that initial burst of fear or anger or whatever, and when our characters do this, something feels off.
As an example, let’s take our undead werewolf monster from above.
Lucy heard a noise.
She crept around a corner and when she rounded it, the sight made her scream.
She ran, her blood racing through her body, as an angry werewolf apparition jumped out at her.
It roared, its yellow eyes hungry for a kill.
Something about this passage seems off, yes? The first problem is that Lucy’s reaction comes before the werewolf actually jumps out at her. As a writer, it’s really tempting to keep our readers in suspense, so we make our characters react first, and then reveal the horrible motivator behind their reaction in hopes of getting a bigger reaction out of our reader. But this doesn’t work for a reader, because if we do this, they are no longer experiencing the story along with the main character. It starts to feel inauthentic, and will pull the reader out of the story.
So. Always put the motivator first.
Then, in the reaction part of this example, Lucy reacts physically (screaming and running) before she reacts internally (her blood racing through her body). In other words, she reacts on purpose before she reacts automatically. And this never rings true. The first thing that should happen when Lucy sees the apparition is her blood racing through her body. This is an immediate reaction that she doesn’t control and takes no thought for. She hasn’t really even processed what she’s seeing yet. After that visceral reaction, then she starts to think. Her brain kicks into gear, and she can then scream and run away.
Here’s a better version of the above example:
The undead werewolf jumped out at her, roaring, its yellow eyes hungry for a kill.
Lucy’s blood turned to ice. Her lower lip trembled, the only part of her that seemed able to move.
The monster roared.
She screamed, and her limbs unfroze. She ran.
Can you see the difference? First the motivation happens (the werewolf jumping out at her). Then her response is 1: a feeling of fear, which manifests by her blood turning to ice, 2: an immediate physical reaction in response to the fear—her lip trembling, 3: conscious action—screaming and running away.
This example was one of fear, but MRU’s come into play all the time, whether your motivation is something sad like losing a pet, something embarrassing like a bad Instagram post going viral, or something climactic like when the romantic tension peaks and they finally kiss already. Anytime something happens—especially when it’s something big—make sure your characters’ reactions happen in the right order so that they ring true.
If you really want to have some fun, pay attention to what happens inside you the next time someone surprises you or scares you or ticks you off. Break down your reactions in order (after you’ve cooled off) and study them. It will make you a better writer.
For some more reading on MRU’s, see the following two articles: