Tag: editing

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Bad feedback will ruin a wonderful story. Learn to recognize bad advice.

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

The secret to increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

Motivation-Reaction Unit

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. (affiliate)

 

How to Be a Good Critique Partner

How to Be a Good Critique Partner

Learning to give better critiques will not only make you more valuable as a critique partner, it will also give you a set of tools to evaluate the feedback you receive.

Writing mistakes ruining your prose

Writing mistakes ruining your prose

No matter how great your plot is, bad prose will sink it fast.

Plot Convenience

Plot Convenience

Who’s in charge of your character’s life? It might not be who you think.

This week’s shredding is from a first draft. The author was having trouble making the opening work and wanted a second look. Her initial feedback had been the standard, (but vague enough to be meaningless): get to the action sooner.

That wasn’t the problem. The inciting incident (finding a magic wand) was only a few pages into the book. She had started in the right place, took a few pages to establish normal, develop the character, all while showing the sequence of events that lead up to the inciting incident. The stakes needed raising and there was too much telling, but it was a draft, and these were easy fixes.

Then it hit me.

The MC happened to be closing the store alone for the first time, which happened to be same night as the dance she really wanted to go to, which distracted her enough to drop something on the floor, which necessitated her going into the closet for the broom, which happened to be overly stuffed, which forced her to…which caused… In other words, the MC found the magic wand through a literary Rube Goldberg.

Well, that’s convenient.

There are plenty of examples of small, seemingly insignificant events have changed history, but lining up a chain of coincidences to get your plot moving is a recipe for disaster. Your story will feel contrived. As a result of this one flaw, I started questioning everything else that happened in the MS. Like, why would anyone leave such a powerful artifact in a shoebox? How could this possibly be the first time the MS had ever needed to sweep the floor in a store that she’s been working in for months? Suddenly everything felt false.

Are your characters making things happen or are they victims of circumstance?

Unless the theme of your manuscript is the random chaos of the universe and how it has the power to change history, you are much better off putting your characters in charge of their own fates. There are plenty of examples that effectively use coincidence as a launching point for a story. Jim Butcher uses this theme to begin his Furies of Calderon series. He succeeds for three reasons. First, he draws attention to it through a mini-preface at the beginning of the prologue. Second, he shows Tavi actively making the seemingly insignificant choice, and finally, everything that happens after results from deliberate choice.

Are solutions magically appearing when your characters need them?

Coincidence can also destroy your plot if it provides solutions. The TV show Sleepy Hollow is notorious for this. No matter what the problem is, Crane just happens to have fought one during the revolution or knows exactly which the book to consult in the massive occult library that no one else in the town seems to know about. Never mind that this library was inexplicably assembled in plain sight in a Puritan region during a time where having such things could get a person executed for witchcraft. Oh, and it somehow survived down to the present day completely intact.

What to do instead:

When you map out your plot:

  1. Your character’s choices must be the driving force behind the story.
    The story would have felt more authentic if the MC had decided to work the odd shift because she needed an excuse not to go to the dance. Maybe the guy she liked never asked her and closing the creep-tastic shop alone on a Friday night was much better than watching Mr. Love Interest dance with other girls.
  2. Use circumstances, or coincidences to complicate their situation, (NEVER as a solution)
    Later the MC rushes off to save her BFF with her new magic wand, oh and it’s the worst snowstorm of the year, and she’s never driven in snow.
  3. If your MC really is a hapless boob who gets blindsided by the plot, make it clear in your prose that this is a deliberate choice.
    And then write a how-to because making a victim MC sympathetic, rather than pathetic, is a master-level skill.

Characters need to be in charge of their own fates. Their circumstances and the story that unfolds around them need to be a direct result of their choices. Make sure your characters are driving the plot and not simply reacting to whatever the world is doing to them. Give them a goal and have them take steps to achieve that goal, rather than have them stumble into the plot blindly. This will make your story more authentic, and your characters more interesting.

 

How to avoid introducing too many characters

How to avoid introducing too many characters

Don’t introduce all your characters in the first chapter I’m ready. Well, I’m pretty sure I’m ready. This is not my element, but I’m intelligent, capable. I can do this. I grip my drink tighter, just to steady my hand. My brain is racing. My […]