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. 

Quote from Mark Twain about the right word illustrates successful story-writing.

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.

Because There Are Lies, Secrets, and Scars

The plot is what happens to your character. The story is about how your character reacts to the things that happen. It’s simple cause and effect, right? Hold on there. It’s not quite that simple. For the most effective story your forces of antagonism (see this post) and your character’s lies, secrets, and scars (see this post) are interwoven. Easy for me to say. Difficult to do. Until you have the golden ticket. What’s that golden ticket? Because there are lies, secrets, and scars and opposition, there is a unique plot.

Because There are Lies, Secrets, and Scars you can create a unique plot. Learn how.

Writers often worry about a story being “done to death.” It’s easy to believe there are no new stories in the world. One look at all the titles in Amazon can overwhelm you. Let’s rephrase.

There are no new story concepts in the world. A story concept is reducing the story to the basics. Concepts include: the revenge plot, the detective story, the space marine story, and so on. There are hundreds if not millions of stories about revenge. That’s the test. If it’s a concept, there are lots of other stories like it.

So how is a writer to make his story stand out?

You make choices. Your choices create a plot.

Choose Your Adventure

You choose what your story concept and theme are. Those are often generic. Your choice of which forces of antagonism you’ll use to structure your story makes your story yours. Which lies, secrets, and scars you choose for your protagonist and antagonist won’t be the same as anyone else’s. This combination of choices sets you up to create a unique plot.

Episodic vs. Cause and Effect

An episodic story lacks plot. Sam sends Mary a dozen rose and then Sam visits her and then Sam proposes to her and then they lived happily (or unhappily) ever after. Not very compelling, is it?

Remember how I said the lies, secrets, and scars of your character are your story’s third rail? And that third rail is what keeps the story train moving. (See the post Lies, Secrets, and Scars Make Better Characters)

If the lies, secrets, and scars are the third rail, “because” is the train’s engine.

Because is a conjunction meaning “for the reason that or due to the fact that.” (Dictionary.com)

Watch what happens to the “and then sentence” when you replace the “ands” and the “thens.”

Example:

BECAUSE Sam’s doesn’t trust himself to tell Mary he loves her, he asks his best friend, Jack, to give her a dozen roses and say they’re from Sam.

BUT Jack, determined to have the Mary first, gives the roses to Mary saying they are from him.

THEREFORE Sam decides he can’t trust anyone, ever and won’t talk to Mary or Jack.

BECAUSE Sam doesn’t trust anyone, he moves out of town and vanishes.

BUT years later, Sam returns to town after his father dies and discovers that the love of his life, Mary, married Jack.

THEREFORE when Sam receives a message from Mary stating she still loves him, he must decide if he can trust the message, Mary, and himself.

As an off-the-top-of-my-head example, this scenario isn’t as strong as I wish it were. But I hope you can see how the tension builds and the conflict gets deeper and deeper using this technique.

The Past

Because links the character to his past decisions, actions or beliefs. His past is always influenced by his lies, secrets, and scars. He makes decisions BECAUSE of his belief in his lies, secrets, and scars.

The Opposition

But is the opposition, the thing that prevents your character from achieving his goal in the scene and the story. This is where unintended consequences can come to play. It can be a case of collateral damage, something the protagonist didn’t foresee. These actions originate from the character’s state of mind OR from the antagonist.

The Consequences

Therefore is the consequences. It can be an internal or external event or a reaction. It always includes a decision (or refusal to make a decision). This is the “how the story events” go forward. Until the next bit of opposition.

Choose Your Tools

Because, But, Therefore are tools you can use to construct a solid plot. There are many other tools that you can use. This is the one I prefer. Will you try this one?

The “because, but, therefore” construction keeps me focused. Because there are lies, secrets, and scars the plotting process is more focused. And because their past influences the choices I make for the characters, a unique plot is born.

7 Quotes on Writing

These seven successful authors each offer a piece of advice on how to write. Together these quotes may be all you need to know about writing fiction.

 

 

 

 

So what do you think? Is this complete? Would you add anything?

Thank you for taking time to read and comment. I’m especially grateful when there are so many concerns that occupy so many of us.

Hurricanes, fires, earthquake, and the floods have ravaged so many. My heartfelt prayers for safety and strength go to all those affected.