So You Want to Write a Story (Part 3)

Last time on part Part 2, we talked about how Character and Setting give birth to Conflict, which is the “push” for our Character to move through the story. 

Now that we have our characters and our setting, and have a sense of what direction/goal they have (via Conflict), how do we move the characters through the setting, both in time/space and narratively? We do this both scene by scene and sentence by sentence. 

The largest scale movement in a story is plot, or scene by scene movement. This is how scenes make chapters, and once you add enough of them together they make a story.

First, let’s talk about crafting an individual scene, and how to do it sentence by sentence. 

Let’s think of a mystery story. The overall plot is our detective needs to solve a murder. A single chapter might focus on questioning a suspect and investigating their alibi. A scene within that chapter could be the detective visiting the suspect after work and asking them questions about the murder. 

But how do we move our detective from breakfast, to the squad car, to the suspects house, up the creaky stairs, get them to knock on the door, show their badge, ask all the questions, then finish the scene?

Well, sentence by sentence, of course. And one of the best tools to do this is Motivation-Reaction Units coined by Dwight Swain. If you have any computer background, it can help to think of these as input/output cycles. If our detective is walking up the stairs to the suspect’s house, they will notice certain details about the stairwell and then react to those details. If the suspect tries to run, our detective steps in the way and tries to stop them. Action-Reaction. 

Starting with Motivation: Our Character (remember that the capital C is our viewpoint character), takes in details from their senses. The lingering, musty smell of the hallway, the dingy wallpaper, the creaking floorboards. 

Now comes the Reaction, and this is three parts: Feeling, Action, and Speech—in that order. 

Feeling comes first. Our detective gags at the smell of the hallway.

Then Action (Mental and/or Physical): He pulls up his shirt and covers his nose to filter out the smell. Mental action is a bit more abstract, but the Character could add the new info to their list, plan out their physical action (like stepping quietly over the boards), or reach a conclusion–like realizing an alibi doesn’t check out. 

Last is Speech: The detective mumbles, “Good God. What died in here?”

Do you need to include all these parts all the time? Nope. Maybe our detective takes in all five senses worth of hallway description, but only gags at the smell. In fact, this is where things start to get subjective, because these Motivation-Reaction Units will look different depending on the style of each writer or even depending on the scene you’re writing. 

For instance, a hostage negotiation is going to read very different from a fight scene. In the hostage negotiation, the detective might have time to think through multiple scenarios in between calls or even second guess their word choice during the conversation. Conversely, during a fight scene, our detective is probably reacting physically, without a lot of mental dialogue or speech. Maybe they even replay the fight in their head as they’re riding in the ambulance afterward. 

My best advice here is to dissect some of your favorite books. Pick a couple different scenes and look at each sentence as a part of a Motivation-Reaction Unit. Do the units look different depending on the pacing of the scene? 

Also, look for summaries—sometimes the MRU cycle is writ large. Imagine a scene where our detective is remembering a prior case and sums it up: ‘It was a rough case, rougher than I care to remember’. Punctuated by a drink from a lowball glass—This isn’t just a tiny detail, it’s a whole memory (maybe a week or a month) from our Character, yet it still counts as a Motivation and the drink counts as a Reaction in the MRU cycle.  Notice that internal memories and internal thoughts can also serve as Motivation that prompts a Character Reaction. 

This is a good time in the series to hammer home the importance of reading. Be sure to read for pleasure and occasionally to read more methodically–to read for analysis. You can take all the writing courses you want, but reading good books (and even bad books) is necessary to become a good writer. To quote Stephen King in On Writing, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” You’ll develop your personal taste for genres and story, which will help you steer in the important direction of what you feel is done well and what isn’t done well. 

If you’re following this series, I’ll assume you’re serious (or at least curious) about writing your own stories. Your homework is to look at one of your favorite novel. Pick three scenes. Make sure they’re different types too; don’t pick three chase scenes or three comic relief scenes. Follow them line by line, looking at the MRU cycle. Take notes on what the character notices and how they react to it. Compare these notes across chapters. How do the MRU cycles of different scenes compare to one another? 

Start thinking about how these small scale MRU cycles build the Character’s personality and how each scene adds a building block to the plot. 

Next time, we’ll talk about the larger scale structure of a story. Until then, check out these ways to get started writing.

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