Inexperienced comedians and actors often wander the stage aimlessly. Sometimes that’s part of the schtick. More often, though, random action signals nervousness and simply distracts. So in theater, directors often warn actors that you can’t just cross the stage because you feel like you’ve been motionless for too long. Movement originates from motivation.
Tip: Never let your character say or do anything without a current, immediate motive.
In “Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing, ” K.M. Weiland explains the “motivation-reaction units,” or MRU’s, that Dwight V. Swain introduces in Techniques of the Selling Writer:
In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes (motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.
The First Gate blog explores this further. The:
Motivation-Reaction Unit is the fundamental building block of an action sequence (it’s important to stress that it does not apply do description, exposition, or reverie). It’s pretty simple: something happens, the hero reacts to it, the situation changes, and something else happens. How characters react to events will largely determine their plausibility and how closely we bond with them. — 1/21/’11
If perhaps a stream of MRU’s seems like extra work, first consider how logical this is. Then consider all the areas you’ll improve.
To link motive to action, you must clearly identify character psychology.
In real life, people do things for reasons. When they don’t, others ask, “Where are you going?” Or, “What’s suddenly bothering you?” Novels need to supply the answers readers might want to ask. This is especially true when characters change their minds or make major decisions. But. This isn’t permission for a paragraph or two of rumination, because there’s never permission for that. It does mean one sentence pinpointing explicit motive.
~ Stage business.
A character hears something and thus does something. Causal and realistic. It also tests whether stage business serves some purpose beyond interrupting the dialogue.
Within the scene, these MR Units mirror what Linda Seger calls “pressure points”—the five or six turning points forming the spine of the novel. Use MRU’s, and the structure of each scene parallels the structure of the scenario.
In both characters and readers. Only characters that make sense elicit empathy, and characters can’t make sense unless the rationale underlying behavior is clear.
Link motive to motion and action, and you enrich both plot and characterization. Because“why” has always been fiction’s most compelling component.