Motivation Reaction Units

A chap named Dwight Swain described them in his book :”Techniques of the Selling Writer”.

They have a macro and a micro level to them, and even the micro level can be broken down further and played with. So, they are a kind of secret “formula” that leave you a lot of leeway to play. Some people will find they do them instinctively. Others might finally click why other people aren’t begging to read more of their work.

So, back to basics…

Writing is about Communication. If we fail to communicate, we fail to share our characters’ journey with our readers.

The point of MRUs is to create logical and clear prose.

However, poetic licence can always override them, if that is the best choice for your story and your readers. But do (if you’re planning on sharing your stories) keep your readers in mind.

MRUs can help because they encourage you to write in a way that fits the universal human experience.

At their most basic, they tell us: A motivation occurs, we react.

Not, we react to a motivation that just occurred.

Granted, yes, I’ve just said the same thing twice and said one version is wrong, but when it comes to clear and logical prose, one of them is (most of the time) wrong.

When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’re introducing an element of unreality, however minuscule. Even if their confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion.

Here are a couple of examples:

I whooped and did a dance right there in the front lawn after Kelsey agreed to marry me.


Kelsey agreed to marry me, and I jumped up and down and whooped right there in the front lawn.

Even I discovered it in my own novel manuscript recently. I had:

Anya felt numb.

The library, as she knew it, stood before her as ever before. But on the table where she and Llew had studied lay a mountain of books. A mountain of black and brown, smouldering books…

Simple fix? I moved the “Anya felt numb” bit below the description of what she’d just seen.

Now, the next step is to look at how humans respond to stimuli. There are three levels to how they experience things.

1. Feeling and/or thought.

2. Action (can include involuntary physical response such as sweating or breathing hard).

3. Speech.

Why this order? Because this is the order in which humans process and respond to stimuli. First comes the involuntary subconscious response, then the involuntary physical reaction, then conscious physical movements,then finally speech. Usually, these responses happen so quickly they’re practically inextricable from one another, but if you pay attention to your own reactions, you’ll be able to break down the progression from involuntary to voluntary. On paper, a character’s reaction might look something like this:

“Of course I’ll marry you,” Kelsey said.

Shock smacked me in the solar plexus. Seriously? She was taking me seriously? My palms started to sweat, and I rubbed them down my jeans. “Uh—” I tried to find words to explain I had just been kidding around. “Well, actually…”

You don’t have to include all the parts of a reaction every time, but you should consider putting the parts you do use in this order.

By organizing the narrator’s response like this, you gain several benefits:

1. Readers resonate with the natural progression of the reaction.

2. Readers can follow the development of the narrator’s thoughts,instead of learning about them after the fact, as would be the case if he spoke first, then shared his thoughts.

3. Readers know who’s doing the talking right away, thanks to the action beat (which isn’t such a big deal here, but would be in a longer scene with more characters).

4. Readers can lean into the strength of the prose’s linear pattern, instead of being jerked along by a less logical progression.

It may seem like a formula, but if you know your characters and their histories well, you’ll find that different characters will react to the same stimuli in different ways. How will a soldier respond to a loud cracking sound, versus a teacher? How will a domestic violence victim respond to her husband’s voice, versus his boss?

Note: This may also not be something to keep in mind on your first draft, but do consider checking how you’re going against this “rule” on second, third, and later drafts.

Some examples to play with (in meeting or as homework):

A car rear-ending your protagonist’s.

2. A cat curling up in his lap.

3. A girl accepting his proposal of marriage.

4. A lightning bolt hitting his house.

5. A line of dialogue.

6. A crack in the sidewalk that catches his toe.

And some extras:

dog breaking its leash and viciously growling as it runs toward the POV character

the hard-won note with secret information fluttering from the POV character’s pocket

the POV character’s love interest whom he thought hated him unexpectedly kissing him


Writing the perfect scene

Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing

Scenes–The Wasted Poet

Motivation Reaction Units (MRUs)


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