Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tip ~ 3/28

 Motivation and Reaction

One of the most important things I learned through all the various writing courses I took was the correlation between motivation and reaction.  This is a concept easy to confuse, and it is easy to lose readers if things aren't in the correct order.

This was very confusing to me when I first started learning about it, and is harder to master than it might sound.  Basically, an action happens first to motivate a response in your character.  Then, the character responds.  The characters response also must come in a certain order:  involuntary body reaction, thought, and finally speech.  The character doesn't have to have every step in their reaction (they can go straight from pounding heart to "What is that?" or even skip the first two and only speak).  However, the reactions cannot come out of sequence ("What was that?" I think someone's after me, she thought, as her heart pounded).

It is hard to remember the motivation must always come first as well.  As a writer, you will lose your reader if you have a paragraph combination like the following:

"I wonder what that could be?", she asked, heart pounding.  A crash sounded through the brush. 

Now, of course, if you are writing a clairvoyant, maybe she did hear it before it sounded.  Barring this, the crash needs to occur first:

A crash sounded through the brush right behind her. 
Jenny whirled around, heart in her throat.  She thought she was alone out here.  "Hello?" she called, trying to control her trembling. 

Then, you are ready for another motivation.  Basically, at the end of every reaction, another motivation happens.  This is what keeps your story moving forward.

The crashing came closer.  Suddenly, a figure burst into Jenny's camp site. (motivation)

Jenny scooped up the machete next to her. (reaction)  "Who are you?" (Speech.  Notice we skipped thoughts, but everything is in order, so this is okay).

The person spread his hands wide, firelight flickering in his eyes.  "It's me, Jen.  Don't hurt me." (New motivation for Jenny.  Since it is her POV, every motivation is focused toward Jenny).

The weapon slipped from her hand and Jenny ran across the encampment.  (reaction) "I thought they killed you." (Speech)  

Tom shook his head.  "I escaped, but I've been hiding for days.  We can't stay here long." 

She wrapped her arms around Tom's dirty body, unable to stop the tears streaming across her face. (reaction)  Thank heavens.  He was safe and she once again had an ally. (thoughts)

Now comes the next motivation, and the next response, and another motivation, and another response.  Books are crafted from these little scenes.  Everything that happens in the novel is either motivation or response.  Now, the motivation or the response to it can each last longer than one paragraph, but after the motivation is done occurring, immediately comes the response.  After the response is completed, follow it up with another motivation.  When you run out of motivations/responses for that scene, your scene is finished.

This is just a little sketch I came up with to explain the motivation-reaction cycle, but the mind of a writer never stops, does it?  Already these characters want to force their way into my head, and I'm having to beat them back.  I have a lot of questions now.  Who's chasing them?  Why are they running?  Are they the good guys, or the bad guys?  Oh well.  There are already too many voices in my head for comfort--I'll have to let these two go.

A good example of what not to do:  I had a scene in Always and Forever where Lilly is injured, and Zach tried to fix her breakfast.  The line read something like - Lilly put one of the syrup-drenched pieces of waffle into her mouth that Zach cut into small bites.

A very astute critic of my book said - "Ha, see, now what have you been telling me? Zach would have cut it first before Lilly put it in her mouth. Maybe switch the lines around."

He was absolutely right (this is definitely not the only time I did this, just the most recent example :-) )  I quickly changed the order of the actions, so Zach cut the waffle before Lilly ate it.  So easy to mess this up.  It always helps to have a few beta readers for extra eyes to make sure you haven't made this mistake and put things out of order.

If your writing is out of sequence, even if the reader doesn't understand what is wrong, it will feel fake.  Readers will not feel like your characters are real people they are sharing an adventure with.  They may not be able to explain why, but they won't connect with the story or find it believable.

Randy Ingermanson has a terrific article on this subject that also deals with the bigger aspect of an entire scene sequence (the motivation-reaction information, or MRU's as he calls them, are explained at the end of the article).  This really helped me fully understand this concept.  You can read it here.

I hope this post helps explain how to correctly write small-scale scenes.  Master the motivation-response reactions, and you will craft compelling scenes readers will love.

Happy writing, everyone.  Have a terrific week!


  1. Excellent tip, Chantel! This is another area I need to recheck in my writing. By the way, I like this new little story that you sprang on us. :) I love how that happens!

    1. :-) Those darn stories never stop, do they? LOL Thanks for reading!

  2. This is a great reminder. I'm sticking it in my folder of things to check when I get stuck, and it happens a lot. I think my problem is that I don't come up with enough motivators to get my characters to do something! lol

    Thanks for the tip.

    1. LOL - darn unmotivated characters! Thanks for reading, Diane!

  3. Great advice and well conveyed. I'll do well to remember this. Thanks for sharing. It always helps to hear it again.


  4. Thanks Chantel! I have copied this to my "rules of writing" file for myself.

    I remember a time when I had someone drinking champagne that hadn't been poured. The things we write sometimes...

    Oh, and when you get some time, could you maybe develop more about Tom and Jenny? You've got me intrigued.

    1. Thanks! haha - I'm with you there. Things get so crystal clear in my mind, they make perfect sense. Until someone says, "What the heck are you doing here?" LOL

      Tom and Jenny keep popping up in my mind. I just started a new WIP and this little scene will not play out there. Maybe Tom and Jenny will have a place in a future novel, who knows?


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