Do You Know The Secrets of Successful Story-writing?

Yes, there are secrets to successful story-writing but don’t worry, the recipes aren’t hard. The ingredients are classic and simple. The directions aren’t difficult. The execution…well, that part’s up to you. Let’s start with the basic M-R unit.

Story equals change…equals cause and effect…

equals motivation and reaction.

—Dwight V. Swain

The Motivation-Reaction Unit

Remember the Because-But-Therefore statement I talked about in Because There are Lies, Secrets, and Scars? Now we’re digging deeper into that concept. 

The M-R Unit is the creation of Dwight V. Swain and discussed in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. The writer who understands the M-R unit will write a successful story. Success may not come in the first draft. But if you understand the M-R unit, you understand one of the secrets of successful story-writing. 

In his book, Swain says, “External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be….They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.”

Cause and Effect

That external event in a story causes the character to have a reaction. Swain calls the event, or cause, a motivating stimulus. The cause, or motivating stimulus,  is “anything outside of your viewpoint character to which he reacts.” Let me repeat that: a motivating stimulus is OUTSIDE of your viewpoint character (Swain uses the term “focal character”) to which he REACTS. (Emphasis mine.) That’s a crucial ingredient in successful story-writing.

So all those lovely events you wrote, where the character is an observer—delete them. Or make that event matter, make it trigger a specific reaction from your character. 

Character Reaction

Swain digs even deeper. There is a pattern we humans follow. When we receive new information there is a change. This change is our motivating stimulus. There is a hierarchy in our reactions to that change. First, we have a feeling. Damn. I’m disappointed. Then we act. I pound the table. Finally, we speak. “Damn it, Jim. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” In reality, these reactions occur very fast, often simultaneously. But in reading, you read words one at a time. (Yes, there are people who read phrases, but it’s still first phrase, second phrase, etc.). To convey simultaneity in writing is difficult and most often, confusing.

Swain calls this hierarchy the motivation-reaction unit. He writes it like this:

  1. Motivating Stimulus
  2. Character Reaction
    1. Feeling
    2. Action
    3. Speech

The words you choose to describe those things isn’t as important as the order in which they appear. If you mix up the order, it feels wrong or doesn’t flow or doesn’t make any sense at all. 

Example

Here’s an example from my first draft of my current WIP.

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“Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”

Oh, crap. Ian’s pulse rocketed. Pop was wrong. “I don’t understand.” He held Dale’s envelope against his chest, his arms folded over it, and tried to interpret Collins’ expression. 

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I’ll break the pattern down into M-R Unit speak.

  • Stimulus: “Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”
  • Speech (remember, thought is internal speech): Oh, Crap.
  • Feeling: Ian’s pulse rocketed
  • Speech: Pop was wrong. “I don’t understand.” 
  • Action: He held Dale’s envelope against his chest, his arms folded over it, and tried to interpret Collins’ expression.

Now read it with the proper hierarchy of the M-R unit.

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“Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”

Ian pulse rocketed. He folded his arms over Dale’s envelope. Held it snug against his chest. Oh, crap. “I don’t understand.” Did Collins rat me out?

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Does this read smoother? Do you feel the increased tension? Do you understand more clearly what Ian’s reaction is? Look at the M-R unit breakdown below.

  • Stimulus: “Ian, you can’t be so naïve that you think the investigation you’re doing is safe?”
  • Feeling: Ian pulse rocketed.
  • Action: He folded his arms over Dale’s envelope. Held it snug against his chest.
  • Speech: Oh, crap. “I don’t understand.” Did Collins rat me out?

In his book, Swain discusses the M-R unit in detail. He also discusses techniques for developing your book from conflict to scene and sequel and all the aspects of successful story-writing. Swain’s book is available on Amazon and Audible. I highly recommend it.

Conclusion

The secrets of successful story-writing aren’t really secrets. And they aren’t rules. Even Swain rejects “rules” for story writing.

“No writer in his right mind writes by a set of rules.”

Dwight V. Swain

But there are patterns to successful story-writing. 

“The first real rule of successful story-writing is…find a feeling.” 

Dwight V. Swain

Use the pattern of stimulus-reaction. Be certain reactions follow the hierarchy. It’s the recipe that will launch you on your way to successful story-writing.

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