What’s the secret to good prose? What makes it work—not just on the aesthetic level of vivid and poetic word choices, but on the deeper and ultimately more important level of functionality? In short, is there a method authors can learn to create clear and powerful prose—or is it all luck and gut instinct?
All prose—whether it’s the elaborate poetry of William Faulkner or the straightforward sentences of Cormac McCarthy—will always be instinctive on some level. Our word choices and sometimes the direction the sentences themselves end up taking can surprise even us sometimes. But if the structure that underlies our sentences and paragraphs is going to effectively convey our thoughts to our readers it will always adhere to the logical pattern of cause and effect.
What’s a motivation-reaction unit?
Dwight V. Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, famously cracked the code of efficient prose into what he called “motivation-reaction units,” or MRUs. Just what are MRUs and how do they work to create good writing?
For all that it sounds like part of an airplane engine, the motivation-reaction unit is an insanely simple concept. It boils down to the following model. In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes (motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.
What’s a motivation?
The motivating factor is an outside stimulus that affects your character. It’s the catalyst that causes the character to react. This catalyst could be:
- A car rear-ending your protagonist’s.
- A cat curling up in his lap.
- A girl accepting his proposal of marriage.
- A lightning bolt hitting his house.
- A line of dialogue.
- A crack in the sidewalk that catches his toe.
The possibilities, of course, are as varied as your story’s needs. The only limitation is that the motivating factor must be something that happens to your protagonist.
What’s a reaction?
The reaction happens in response to the motivating factor. This is the effect of the cause. It is something your character does in response to something else. His reaction could be:
- Slamming his car’s brakes.
- Petting the cat.
- Hugging the girl.
- Running out of his house.
- Saying another line of dialogue in return.
- Tripping and falling to the sidewalk.
Easy-peasy, right? The only trick is . . .
Getting the order right
The catch to MRUs is that they must be presented in the correct order. When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’re introducing an element of unreality, however miniscule. Even if their confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion. In the example below, which order makes more sense?
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.
From this point on, it gets just a smidge more complicated, since we can further break down the reaction half of the unit into three distinct responses, each of which also needs to be presented in its logical order:
- Feeling and/or thought.
- Action (can include involuntary physical response such as sweating or breathing hard).
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 . . .”
By organizing the narrator’s response like this, you gain several benefits:
- Readers resonate with the natural progression of the reaction.
- 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.
- 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).
- Readers can lean into the strength of the prose’s linear pattern, instead of being jerked along by a less logical progression.
Are there exceptions to the MRU?
Absolutely. The whole point of the MRU is to create logical and clear prose. If forcing your paragraphs into the MRU ever runs counter to either of these goals, don’t be afraid to manipulate it to fit your needs. Same goes for the occasional bit of poetic license. Sometimes you’re just plain going to want to break the rules in order to achieve a specific effect.
Keep in mind you won’t always need or want to include all three parts of the reaction. Sometimes dialogue will be sufficient to explain your character’s emotional and mental reaction. And sometimes he will confine his reaction to emotions and/or thoughts without offering any kind of speech or movement.
At first, you may not find MRUs intuitive. Dialogue, in particular, often wants to sneak ahead of other aspects of the reaction, since we usually hear and transcribe the back and forth of our characters’ conversation before visualizing their accompanying physical actions.
To get you started, try editing an old story with a special eye on organizing your MRUs. Although you’ll certainly find places where you’ll want to make exceptions, I promise you’ll discover that your prose will emerge as a stronger and more cohesive whole.
Photo courtesy of K.M. Weiland
Originally published on Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors