1. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    Motivation-Reaction Units

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by ashurbanipal, Dec 4, 2016.

    I have recently re-read Dwight Swain's 'Techniques of the Selling Writer'. Using his idea of motivation-reaction units, I decided to see if a book I have just finished used this concept at all. I realise most authors don't stick rigidly to this pattern, but I find it useful to look analytically at structure from time to time. I have tried to break up this excerpt into what I think should be M-R units, but I would be interested to hear what others have to say.

    My comments are bolded/italicised in brackets.

    'Following the dawn prayer, with clouds of darkness defying the vigorous thrust of light, the vizier Dandan was called to a meeting with the sultan Shahriyar. [Motivation: Dandan called to meeting]. Dandan's composure vanished. The heart of a father quaked within him as, putting on his clothes, he mumbled, "Now the outcome will be resolved—your fate, Shahrzad." [Reaction: composure vanished, he mumbled...]

    'He went by the road that led up to the mountain on an old jade, followed by a troop of guards; preceding them was a man bearing a torch, in weather that radiated dew and a gentle chilliness. (Three years he had spent between fear and hope, between death and expectation; three years spent telling stories; and thanks to those stories, Shahrzad's life span had been extended. This section sounds like a summary, so I'm not sure if it can be counted as M or R?) Yet, like everything, the stories had come to an end, had ended yesterday. So what fate was lying in wait for you, O beloved daughter of mine?' [Motivation? Possibly as the question contains an implicit motivation?]

    'He entered the palace that perched on top of the mountain. The chamberlain led him to a rear balcony that overlooked a vast garden. Shahriyar was sitting in the light shed by a single lamp, bare-headed, his hair luxuriantly black, his eyes gleaming in his long face, his large beard spreading across the top of his chest. [Motivation: Shahriyar appears—what feelings does he cause?] Dandan kissed the ground before him, feeling, despite their long association, an inner fear for a man whose history had been filled with harshness, cruelty, and the spilling of innocent blood. [Reaction: Kissing ground, fear]'

    Scene Summary:
    M: Dandan called to meeting.
    R: Discomposure.
    Summary/Flashback:
    M: Entering palace, Shahrzad appears.
    R: Kisses ground and fears.

    It seems that the author (Naguib Mahfouz) has only loosely applied the M-R Unit concept, as the first page includes summary and a few past-perfects (she/he had done...) which D. Swain warns against.

    Any comments/thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks!
     
  2. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I'm not really into this sort of writing framework, so I could be off base, but... does "called to a meeting" really count as motivation? Or would the motivation be something like "wanting to preserve his position" or "trying to save face" or something?

    (That's based on a traditional understanding of the word motivation. Possibly it's being used differently in this context...)
     
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  3. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    In this context Motivation-Reaction is basically synonymous with cause and effect applied to scene structure. I agree that the 'deeper' or 'underlying' motivation is probably wanting to preserve his position. Although I find it limiting to write rigidly using one type of framework, I find it useful to examine other authors' techniques to see what does/doesn't work.
     
  4. Infel

    Infel Contributor Contributor

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    I think that, if Swain's idea is to be followed to a tee, then this particular author is not a good example of M-R units.

    Swain mentions that the motivation should have no trace of your main character in it. It should be an objective, 'anyone can see', paragraph. Or page, or whatever. Swain also mentions that the motivation section should be clean, simple, and straightforward. Fluff is subjective, and should be left to the reaction. Because of that, the sentence:

    'Following the dawn prayer, with clouds of darkness defying the vigorous thrust of light, the vizier Dandan was called to a meeting with the sultan Shahriyar.

    Reads poorly. If Swain's writing is our bible for the moment, it would be much better as:

    The dawn prayer was done. Clouds of darkness defied the vigorous thrust of light. Up in his palace, the sultan called for his Vizier.

    Dandan was (insert subjective, feeling-intensive paragraph here)

    Swain is also very adamant about seperating motivation paragraphs from reaction paragraphs, which he says is to limit confusion. In his world, one action has one reaction, and the reader prefers it to be that way.

    'He entered the palace that perched on top of the mountain. The chamberlain led him to a rear balcony that overlooked a vast garden. Shahriyar was sitting in the light shed by a single lamp, bare-headed, his hair luxuriantly black, his eyes gleaming in his long face, his large beard spreading across the top of his chest. [Motivation: Shahriyar appears—what feelings does he cause?]

    Dandan kissed the ground before him, feeling, despite their long association, an inner fear for a man whose history had been filled with harshness, cruelty, and the spilling of innocent blood. [Reaction: Kissing ground, fear]'

    As long as that separation is there, this is a better example. But it still isn't a great one. Swain would argue that this second paragraph should be as subjective and feeling-centric as possible. The reaction brings us closer to the character, and shows us, rather than tells us, how he is feeling and behaving. Rather than remarking that Dandan had a feeling of inner fear, it would be better--according to Swain--to show more action.

    Dandan kissed the ground before him. He tried to make himself small, unopposing; meek. A bead of sweat dripped down his lip, and his tongue sped to catch it. The salt carried the same taste of blood. Dandan shuddered. It could very well be blood in his mouth--and from his neck, if the sultan was feeling pettish.

    Long answer, I know, but I hope it helps!
     
  5. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    It would drive me nuts trying to write with a formula rattling around in my head. It's hard enough to create a scene without also putting restrictions on how it comes out. A natural way of fixing something like this in your head though is to create a situation/action that provokes a response/opinion/reaction from your characters. For instance Scrooge - when someone says Merry Christmas and he says Bah, humbug - that says a lot about him and his motivation. For me the only thing I really need to keep in mind is my character. As long as I can understand what's motivating him the responses/reactions/and opinions will work.

    Motivation doesn't have to always be crystal clear so long as it's not so bizarre that it doesn't create confusion. Nabokov spent three chapters (I think) building up Humbert Humbert's past so that we'll understand why he reacts to Lolita the way he does. To protect him momentarily from looking like an ordinary pervert.
     
  6. Infel

    Infel Contributor Contributor

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    I understand that the idea of 'writing with a formula' is really, really upsetting to creative people. I also don't think Swain deals with that topic appropriately.

    Writing and editing are two opposite processes; writing is creating, and editing is destroying. It is impossibly frustrating to try and do both at the same time. When you're writing, ignore the crap out of rules. Only when you've let your piece sit, and it comes down to the knife, should writing tools be brought out. When it's time for that, tools like the MR unit are infinitely useful.

    Also, as mentioned above, 'motivation' here doesn't mean character motivation: it's the 'cause' part of the 'effect' of the character reacting to a situation. It's a device Dwight Swain uses in his book. It's a really good read and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to add tools to their writer's kit.

    Here's a link to a small article about it:

    http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/
     
  7. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    That's almost the complete opposite of what I'd recommend.

    I guess it depends on how much patience you have for re-writing, but the idea of writing an entire book and only then going back and trying to impose structure on things sounds like a nightmare to me. For me, it's much better to write the tightest, most polished version I can the first time through in order to avoid extensive rewrites and editing.

    Which isn't to say that your approach is wrong. Just that it's not the only possible way to do things, or necessarily the best.
     
  8. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Editing is destroying?
    I don't think so. Editing is polishing. Taking what you have - your raw stone- and turning it into a multifaceted gem.
    Also to me the reaction to a situation is unimportant if it's not about the character. Who cares if the world blows up if there's no one around to gasp.
     
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  9. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    I find an approach between the two to be quite useful: I try to organise my scenes so they have a tight motivation-reaction structure, but I also allow myself flexibility if I feel it would add the story/scene/atmosphere.

    Regarding the excerpt I posted: What would Dwight make of the 'flashback' or summary (Three years he had spent...)? I suppose it is kind of an extension to the reaction, but it might be better placed later on in the chapter?

    This is a translated work and so the different literary tradition and translation choices might be affecting the overall style somewhat, but it is still interesting to see how Dwight's concepts can be applied.

    @Infel - Interestingly, I actually find your rewritten version of the first paragraph to be more reader-friendly and it would be more likely to pique my interest.
     
  10. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Does the MRU thing not apply later on in chapters? I thought it was for the whole book?
     
  11. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    Yes, it applies to every scene essentially. I should clarify: I feel that this little section where the author summarises the character's past could have been placed somewhere else in the book—whether that would make it a motivation/reaction, I don't know.
     
  12. Denegroth

    Denegroth Banned

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    What exactly does the tool do, I mean what job is it supposed to accomplish? I agree the word "motivation" is being confused with "stimulus". Reaction? Response? Sounds like the tool takes more work to operate than the work it does. All I can see here is a way to codify finished work.

    When my attention lags while I'm revising, I mark my spot and take a break. However, if someone wants to take seriously the suggestions from a guy who wrote Drummers of Daugavo for Fantastic Adventures...and taught at the University of Oklahoma. Have at it. He must know something, right?
     
  13. OJB

    OJB A Mean Old Man Contributor

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    I write in MRUs. I suppose the reason I fell in love with it is the same reason I love Iambic Pentameter, I enjoy seeing how creative I can be within the framework of a rigid structure.
     
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  14. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    Swain's use of terminology is quite idiosyncratic. For me, I think it helps me to not wander off on a tangent too much, but the academic writer in me also loves analysing things to death so codification of texts is interesting, but not necessarily the best way to actually write per se. I don't think using his ideas his necessarily a bad thing due to his publication history, especially if he was primarily an academic—how many writers of critical theory have actually written successful novels? I think the two are quite separate skills (which is also probably why the advice shouldn't be taken as absolute rules).
     
  15. Denegroth

    Denegroth Banned

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    By "successful" I'm assuming you mean, "got paid."
     
  16. ashurbanipal

    ashurbanipal Member

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    Paid, or at least some form of recognition for their (non-academic) writing. Not that I know of many academics who also have written fiction—Umberto Eco springs to mind. Of course not that money should be the determining factor when considering the value of art, but that's a topic for another thread.
     

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