The importance of MRUs

Before I get into today’s post let me tell you where I’m coming from. I’ve been writing most of my life. Even as a pre-teen I could always write better than I could speak. What I mean is, suppose I did something wrong but for the right reason. And let’s say my parents were angry and scolding me for what I had done. At that moment I’d find myself speechless even though I had a good excuse. I’d go to my room and write my feelings down on paper and hand it to them. Then they’d realize that my actions, although wrong, were done with good intentions. I couldn’t put it into words in the heat of the moment but I could easily write it down. This has occurred many times in my life and I’ve always resorted to the written word to bail me out.

notes passing

Years later, I was living with this man and his two daughters. One daughter was very introverted. Her father didn’t know how to reach her and basically had given up, thinking she’d grow out of it. Well not me. I knew something was bothering her and I knew how to reach her.

You guessed it, I wrote her notes.

She would constantly lock herself in her room (well, not lock, but you know what I mean). I’d get out my handy notepad and write notes to her. Something simple like, “You seem sad.” to start with. Seconds later I’d see a note slipped back under the door. It read, “Maybe.” You know kids, most of them won’t tell you what’s wrong right off the bat. I’d write, “Do you miss your Mom?” Bingo– that was it. Sure enough she responded, “Yes.” We continued back and forth until I had used almost the entire notepad! It was easier for her to write her feelings rather than speak them, as it is for so many.

In my twenties I wrote a dozen or so children’s books. I never really wanted to be known as a children’s author (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me). I wrote them for the kids in my life to enjoy. Since then I’ve written short stories and two novels and am currently working on my third.

I’m telling you all of this to lend some credibility to today’s post. I am not yet traditionally published but am so close I can taste it. Presently my manuscript is in three agents’ hands and one publisher. TIMBER POINT has gotten a lot of attention and it’s only a matter of time before it gets published.

Throughout the years I’ve learned so much about the craft. My goal has always been to get published traditionally and then help other authors do the same by sharing the knowledge I’ve acquired during my journey.

Today I figured why wait? I have knowledge to share now! With that in mind I wrote this post.

First, I need to get the basics out-of-the-way before we dig in and get our hands dirty working on the details. Just bear with me a minute.

As most of you know, at least you should, there are structures to each and every scene.

The large-scale structure:

GOAL: What your protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.

CONFLICT: Obstacles your protagonist encounters in trying to reach his/her goal.

DISASTER:  The failure your protagonist faces.  Don’t let him/her reach his/her goal!

REACTION:  The protagonist’s emotional reaction to the disaster.

DILEMMA:  A situation where there’s no right answer.  If she does this, then this will happen. An impossible choice with no good options.

DECISION:  The act of making the choice.  What road he/she will take.

When I took a mystery writing course my instructor taught it this way:




EMOTION: The first emotion in dealing with the disaster

THOUGHT: The thought that occurs from the emotion, stemming from disaster



As you can see the scene is the same but the sequel is different.  Neither way is wrong, but the first grouping is more widely recognized.

Each scene can be broken into two parts: Scene and Sequel.

And most of you know what those elements are:

Scene:  Goal, conflict, disaster

Sequel:  Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

Now we break it down even smaller.  This is where the fun starts.

Don't worry it's not this difficult!Don’t worry it’s not this difficult.


Dominique Swain broke the scene and sequel into two parts. Motivation and Reaction. He called them Motivation-Reaction-Units, or MRUs for short.

When I learned this it was like a light bulb going off.

light bulb

The Motivation is external, and you present it this way: in external terms.

For example:

Footsteps approached closer and closer. The gnarled branches of a raspberry bush swung back and forth from the breeze as the wingtips turned in my direction, and then stopped.

As you can see, you can use more than one external element. Just not too many or it becomes an information overload and almost ridiculous. Your reader will say, “Ok, then what happened?” or  “Hurry up and make your point!”

The subject in the example are the footsteps and the bush. We are not in the footsteps’ head (obviously) nor are we in the bush’s head, as absurd as that sounds. What I mean is, it is totally objective, not internal.


Now, can you guess what reaction equals? Yup, internal.


Reactions are more complex than Motivations because they are internal. Using the examples above the reactions would be…  Wait, one quick note. I usually write in first person so the example is in that POV.

Now for the example:

A wave of panic washed over me. My breath left me as I watched. And I hoped he wouldn’t find me.

The reaction is the very first thing that occurs internally. When someone is hiding and sees the dreaded wingtips they wouldn’t slide backwards. At least, that’s not their initial reaction that happens in the first millisecond after seeing the shoes. They might do that next but it’s not their first reaction. Reactions must be in order. Otherwise the reactions aren’t realistic and your reader will stop reading. No one wants that, right?

So, the reactions in order are:  A wave of panic washed over me. My breath left me as I watched. And I hoped he wouldn’t find me. Prayed he’d leave so I could escape. I scooted back so my body was engulfed in darkness. Shadows shielding me from sight.


This is very important. You NEVER, NEVER, NEVER have your Motivations in the same paragraph as your Reactions. This was news to me, and when I discovered it everything else made sense! It amped my writing and made it more gripping and suspenseful. It doesn’t matter if your Motivation is only one sentence long. IT MUST HAVE ITS OWN PARAGRAPH.


I hope this post helps a new writer struggling with structure. Oh, and before I forget, now that you know this insider knowledge go back to the beginning of your novel and first, check your structure. Secondly, separate your Motivations from your Reactions. The proof of its power will appear right before your eyes. Continue over and over until you’ve done this to your entire novel. I know, I know, it’s a lot of work. But don’t you want it right? If you pick up any novel you’ll see the Motivations are always separated from the Reactions. Maybe not self-published novels, but pick up a successful novel written by one of the greats and you’ll see what I mean.

If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you.



21 thoughts on “The importance of MRUs

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    • Thank you so much. I’ve never really thought of myself as a teacher before, but it’s so nice to hear. If there’s a subject you’d like me to cover I’d be happy to write a post on it.


      • Wow, thanks. I’m struggling with motivation. I started blogging as a personal conversation with an old friend in poetry form. I just opened a blog for Napowrimo and don’t know where I’m going with it–Open Heart and Frank Opinion


            • With regard to your writing… If you set daily word count goals, and don’t stop until you’ve reached that goal, it’s very effective. Have you read On Writing by Stephen King? If you haven’t, you should. There is a section about this very thing. I think every writer should have it in their “writer’s toolbox”. As far as motivation in general, this is what I do: I believe wholeheartedly that I will succeed. My mind is made up, and nothing can stand in my way. If that means other things have to fall by the wayside, so be it. And by other things I don’t mean my family. I mean things like social gatherings and such. My writing must come first. I dream of the day I get “the call”. I know it’s so close I can almost touch it. I daydream of how my books will look on the shelves, what the book covers will look like, going to book signings, and writing one novel after another that people look forward to reading. That’s what keeps me motivated.


      • Well I started responding to your comment and I have no idea what happened with it. I need help with the technical issues of blogging. I started this journey to communicate with an old friend in poetry form. Then I tried short stories and reflections about other things. I started building a following, only five, but that made me aware that some of my entries were too personal. Decided I needed focus so I opened another one–Open Heart and Frank opinion–for the Nanowrimo challenge and I am taking the challenge of Blogging 101 with WordPress to make it presentable to the public. Please stop by and tell me what you think. I really need feedback.


        • I checked out your blog, Open Heart and Frank opinion, and liked it. I can’t help you with poetry since that’s not my writing form. However, the poetry community is vast. If you wanted to keep your blog about poetry I would suggest joining a poetry community and finding your audience there. With a quick Google search I found– they claim to be the largest online poetry community. The offer contests, critiques, slams, and much more. Deep Underground Poetry (16K members) is another one. They offer a platform for publishing poetry online, meeting poets and obtaining critique on your poetry. And lastly, The Poet Sanctuary, which is a forum, a great place to interact with other poets. They offer critiques and a sense of community. All three I’ve mentioned are open to published and unpublished poets and are free to join. (Allpoetry has a free member option according to your posts, it looks like) Any one of these would be a great place to gather followers.

          If you want to stray from poetry, adding poems occasionally, but don’t know what to write about, you have definitely joined the right challenge– Blogging 101. I’m participating in Blogging 201. I think it will be great fun and highly informative.

          Everyone struggles with blogging content– you are not alone– but Blogging 101 will help you with that issue. I will also be sharing what I learn during Blogging 201, so stay tuned.

          If you need any assistance, or I haven’t answered your question fully, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

          Good luck!


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