Motivation-Reaction Units: The ‘Gunshot Moment’.

A few months ago, I discovered Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) and they have now become one of my favourite tools for editing. They are helpful in analysing a scene at sentence level; perhaps something feels missing, jars, or just doesn’t flow.

For those of you who come out in a cold sweat when faced with writing terminology, yur eyes are probably glazing over by now, but I urge you to stick with it. The term was coined by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Not the catchiest of names, in my opinion, as it doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin.

Motivation, in this instance, refers to an external event, which can include dialogue, and the reaction is how the character responds to it. Essentially, it’s cause and effect, ensuring that action is followed by reaction, and the character responses occur in an order the reader can identify with.

As an example, I’ll attempt a scene with a gunshot as the external event. The character may respond by diving for cover, shouting instructions and drawing his gun.

‘Stay down,’ he shouted, after a shot rang out across the street.

Here, the response is given before the event has happened, and for a micro second, the reader will pause as the brain sub-consciously reverses the order. Thus, the forward movement of the story has been lost.

A shot rang out across the street. ‘Stay down,’ he shouted.

For me, this flows better as it mirrors the natural order of events. But at a moment of high tension, your body will be processing other feelings and reactions before you can even begin to formulate words.

Dwight Swain breaks down these responses into three separate components that, he says, must be written in order. They are: Feelings, action and speech.

Some commentators on writing techniques, however, suggest a variation on the above to include:

Visceral – an instinctive feeling or emotion you have no control over that happens almost instantly.

Reflex Action – an action that happens without conscious thought.

Thought – the character’s rational thought after the event.

Action – the rational action he takes.

Speech – what he says.

So, here’s the gun shot scene again, incorporating all five reactions, but out of sequence.

A gunshot rang out across the street. ‘Stay down,’ he shouted. He pulled out his gun, and pushed his wife to the ground, his heart thumping. He scanned the rooftops. Where were the shots coming from?

Okay, so now we are more grounded in the moment. It’s better, but something still feels off. This is because humans respond to events in a certain order. Our bodies react instinctively before the rational brain has a chance to fully engage, and readers sub-consciously relate to this order.

So, consider the example one more time in correct, chronological order.

A gunshot rang out across street. His heart thumped and he pushed his wife to the ground. Where were the shots coming from? He scanned the rooftops and pulled out his gun. ‘Stay down,’ he said.

To my mind, this flows better. The uncontrolled visceral response comes first,followed by the reflex action of pushing his wife, then thought. Scanning the rooftops and pulling out his gun are actions that take place once his rational mind is back in control, and finally he talks.

As with any rule, there are always exceptions, and often, writers don’t use all five responses. The important thing is to write them in the correct order. The tricky part for me, is deciding when and how many of the responses to use. So when I edit, I look for what I now call ‘gunshot moments’; events or dialogue that are unexpected or cause a sudden change in emotion, and that’s the point where I aim for a full motivation-reaction unit.

For anyone interested in learning more, Randy Ingermanson (AKA The Snowflake Guy), has a great article about MRUs here.

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