Create Compelling Scenes with the MRU

I consider myself fortunate to have met Mr. Swain early in my writing career. His book helped me massively improve my writing. I hope this information helps you too. Writing Compelling Scenes with the MRU is introduced here and appears in full on the Writers in the Storm blog on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.


Structuring your novel’s big picture is important. The structure of your scenes all the way down to your character’s motivations and reactions are equally important. If you get the sequence out of order, you risk confusing or completely disengaging your reader. Don’t worry. You can create compelling scenes with the MRU. The motivation-reaction unit (MRU) is a tool introduced by Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. This post is only an introduction to the MRU. In his book, Mr. Swain does a deep dive into the MRU and other tools writers can use to be a selling writer.

“A story is a series of motivation-reaction units. The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”

Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain.

What is the MRU?

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Mr. Swain uses his understanding of the pattern of emotion (how people’s brains work) to create a guideline for writing fiction. He calls it the motivation-reaction unit (MRU) and breaks it down into parts. 

At its simplest, the MRU is—

a.) Motivation.

b.) Reaction.

In the book, Mr. Swain talks about each part of the MRU in great detail. Read it to get a deeper understanding of the MRU. He also discusses what story is, story structure, character, conflict, and ways to be a successful professional writer. 

How Your Brain Reacts to Stimuli 

People react to a stimulus predictably. There are simple responses, more detailed responses and complex responses. What we think varies. What we feel varies. What we do and say varies. But each of our brains reacts to a stimulus in the same pattern. 

A stimulus is something that directly rouses a reaction or activity. We pick up stimuli with one of our senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste. Neurons in your brain process the stimulus and cause a sequence of responses. The blink of an eye is one reflex that happens instantly. Some responses we learned at an early age— don’t touch the hot stove. We gain some after repeated experiences, and some responses need to be processed on a higher level of thought that might take hours to months.

Simplest Stimulus and Response

A reflex is your body’s simplest response. A dangerous stimulus causes an immediate motor response. 

Stimulus: Something flies toward your eye.

Response: You blink without a conscious thought. 

More Complicated Stimulus and Response

The more complicated the stimuli, the more complicated your response. Your brain processes this in nanoseconds and your body responds in seconds or minutes. 

Stimulus: 

You feel the pain of a bee stinging you.

Reaction: 

You want to stop the pain, slap at the bee, and yell. 

Complex Stimuli and Response

Some stimuli, particularly social ones, are far more complex and trigger a complex response.

Stimulus:

Your ex-husband confronts you at a public event and loudly demands that you admit your much loved, recently departed, second husband abused you. 

Reaction:

Confused and hurt, you play the words in your head again,. You knot your hands into fists. You politely deny the accusation and you excuse yourself from the uncomfortable situation. Later, you replay the scene in your head; you remember similar conversations with your ex, and your suppressed anger boils. You curse loudly and deface your ex’s expensive car. 

How to Create an Effective Motivation

Motivation always comes before reaction. But what motivation is Mr. Swain talking about?

Read More

Where did you first hear about the MRU? What have you written, read, or watched that has a great example of the MRU?

If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the Story Sentence or my posts on Re-Visioning Your Story.

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