13. Scenes, Sequels, and MRUs

In the last post I looked at some techniques for plotting out a novel. In this post, I’ll look at one technique for improving the writing of the scenes that make up the plot. I’ve been looking through Randy Ingermanson’s advice on writing the perfect scene. I mentioned his Snowflake method in the last post.

You can find his advice on writing the perfect scene here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/

I’m not going to go through the whole technique. You can look it up if you’re interested in the detail. Basically he talks about the large-scale structure of scenes and their small-scale structure. This is tried and tested stuff, he says. All scenes are either SCENES or SEQUELS. A SCENE is structured, he says, into Goal, Conflict and Disaster.  A SEQUEL is structured into Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision.  Sequels follow scenes and give rise to new scenes.

He writes “You may think these patterns are too simple. You may think this is reducing writing to Paint-by-Numbers. Well, no. This is reducing fiction to the two patterns that have been proven by thousands of novelists to actually work. There are plenty of other patterns people use. They typically work less well.”

I thought it would be interesting to try out his technique on my novel A Prize of Sovereigns. I analysed Chapter 1, and it seemed to fit his idea of a SCENE.

He then goes on to say it’s not enough to create a structure of SCENES and SEQUELS. You have to actually write them, which is where the small-scale structure comes in. The small-scale structure, he says, is a chain of MRUs. MRUs are units (the U) of objective Motivations (the M), followed by subjective Reactions (the R). A scene is just a string of MRUs. He gives the following as an example of a motivation, objective and external: “The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack”; and this as an example of a reaction, internal and subjective: “A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. ‘Die, you bastard!'”. Anything which isn’t a Motivation or a Reaction should be ruthlessly purged, he argues.

So I analysed my chapter into MRUs. You can see the beginning of it below. I’ve colour coded the motivations in blue, the reactions in red, and other stuff in purple. After the analysis, I rewrote the chapter according to his stipulations.

Original

MRU 1
What a fragile thing a man’s head was. So easily stove in with a hammer. Or lopped from the neck with a swing of a broadsword.

Byrom’s thoughts were oddly detached as he watched. He yielded only the hint of a shiver as Nye Stokys’ severed head bounced on the wooden planking of the bridge.

BACKSTORY
Byrom, of the House of Simmister, had claimed his share of heads in battle. He liked war,
MRU 2
but as he watched the rebel’s headless body crumple and then slowly fall, he knew this was different. This was the first time he had taken a head under a flag of parley. From here, there was no going back. There was no honour in this. But the meaning of that word depended on who you were. The honour of Kings lay in safeguarding the realm.

Revised version
MRU 1
Nye Stokys’ severed head bounced on the wooden planking of the bridge.

Byrom’s thoughts were oddly detached as he watched, yielding only the hint of a shiver What a fragile thing a man’s head was. So easily stove in with a hammer. Or lopped from the neck with a swing of a broadsword.

BACKSTORY

Byrom, of the House of Simmister, had claimed his share of heads in battle. He liked war,

MRU 2
But this was the first time he had taken a head under a flag of parley. From here, there was no going back.

As he watched the rebel’s headless body crumple and then slowly fall, he knew this was different. There was no honour in this. But the meaning of that word depended on who you were. The honour of Kings lay in safeguarding the realm.

The results were interesting. Mostly the Chapter fell out into MRUs and backstory. The MRUs were often inverted, with the reaction coming before the motivation, which was something I hadn’t noticed before. Also, a no-no in Ingermanson’s method, some paragraphs mixed motivations and reactions,as you can see. So in the rewrite, I put motivations before reactions, and separated them into distinct paragraphs. It’s the reaction that puts you into the character’s head, so it’s important to give it prominence. I also checked that the reactions followed a logical sequence – from feeling, to reflex response, to rational action and speech. I eliminated everything that wasn’t an MRU.

Did it make the chapter better? It makes sense, but I’m still not sure. I certainly wasn’t happy about losing the backstory or other elements, such as the description of the main character. I don’t see how you can do away with dropping in backstory. As for the strict sequence of motivation followed by reaction, I don’t know whether readers will find it harder to identify with an MRU if the reaction comes before the motivation. Do we always need to see the zombie before we hear the scream, or is the scream primal enough sometimes?

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone else who’s tried the technique.

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5 thoughts on “13. Scenes, Sequels, and MRUs

  1. Neil, having slavishly following the MRU formula, I found your post eye-opening. I liked your version better… more suspense and style. I’m not sure placing the reaction first would hold up for an entire story. But your example tells me that switching the order occasionally can keep things fresh. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Howard. This is the post that gets the most views, and it’s really good to get a sense of why people are looking at it, and what they’re taking away from it. So thanks so much forleaving the comment. I’m really glad it was useful to you.

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      1. To any others of you visiting this post, please do feel free to leave a comment on what you thought about it. It will help me decide what to write more of in this blog

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  2. Very informative, my only query is the paragraph section. Would it read on the page like this,

    Nye Stokys’ severed head bounced on the wooden planking of the bridge.
    Byrom’s thoughts were oddly detached as he watched, yielding only the hint of a shiver What a fragile thing a man’s head was. So easily stove in with a hammer. Or lopped from the neck with a swing of a broadsword.
    But this was the first time he had taken a head under a flag of parley. From here, there was no going back.
    As he watched the rebel’s headless body crumple and then slowly fall, he knew this was different. There was no honour in this. But the meaning of that word depended on who you were. The honour of Kings lay in safeguarding the realm.

    Slightly confused about the paragraphing needed. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks Conor. What you’ve quoted there is the revised version, rather than my actual text. As I said in the post, I wasn’t convinced by the test that revising into MRUs made it better. So I never put it into paragraphs. Bu what you suggest there looks sensible

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