Thursday, June 27, 2013

Guest Post - Author Jordan McCollum

I'm still on a blogging break.
While I'm on a blogging break, author Jordan McCollum
is here to share some of her secret sauce.
You can get more of her awesomeness by following her blog.

Motivation-Reaction Units
By Jordan McCollum

Motivation-reaction Units are a very simple principle taught by Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer. Basically, it means that, because writing and reading a (generally) linear activities, we need to make sure that the actions that happen are also linear.

On a plot level, that's not always strictly necessary—I'm sure we can all think of a story with a good nonlinear plotline (my favorite is Memento but examples include even the famous "backwards" finale of Seinfeld). However, in the live action of our stories, it's much, much easier to follow and understand when things happen as they do in the real world: first a stimulus, then a reaction.

An example
Surprise is definitely a good thing in fiction—we don't want to read the exact same story in every book—but surprise when it doesn't make sense only confuses our readers.

Here's an example of a somewhat minor violation of the motivation-reponse rule:
Marie continued blathering on and I turned to look out the window just for a minute.

"Ouch!" I yelped, grabbing my head where a water bottle had just hit it. "Why did you do that?"
There are several motivation-reaction units in these three sentences. Marie's rambling is the first stimulus, and the narrator's reaction is to look out the window. So far, so good: things are happening in the natural order.

But then we get off course in the next sentence: we get the narrator's reaction (Ouch!) several words before we see the stimulus (water bottle to the head).

That's not the way it works in the physical world where we live. We drop something, it falls. We throw an object, it sails through the air, maybe hits something. We stub our toes, we yelp in pain. These things don't make any sense if they don't happen in order. (Yelping before you stub your toe? Psychic phantom pains?)

I like to give my readers a lot of credit, but to ask them to reinterpret the simple sequence of actions just to make sense is making my readers do too much work. I'd rather them spend their time reading my words, not reanalyzing them!

The fix

"Water - Bottle" by Стефан Симов

"Water Bottle" Installation by Stefan Simov

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Flickr & CC license

So how do we fix these sequential slips? Always show the motivation before the reaction. Or, in our example:
Marie continued blathering on and I turned to look out the window just for a minute.

Something hard hit the back of my head. "Ouch!" I turned in time to see a water bottle clattering across the floor, rolling away. I shot an accusatory look at Marie. "What was that for?"
Notice that we're not adding something the narrator can't see: Marie behind him/her, throwing the water bottle. We still stay firmly in the narrator's head and POV, but now we have the motivation first to give their reaction context and just. make. sense!

What do you think? Do motivation-reaction units trip you up?

About the Author
minxyAn award-winning author, Jordan McCollum can’t resist a story where good defeats evil and true love conquers all. In her day job, she coerces people to do things they don’t want to, elicits information and generally manipulates the people she loves most—she’s a mom.

Jordan holds a degree in American Studies and Linguistics from Brigham Young University. When she catches a spare minute, her hobbies include reading, knitting and music. She lives with her husband and four children in Utah.

Jordan's first novel, I, Spy, is out now: To save her country and her secrets, CIA operative Talia Reynolds will have to sacrifice the man she loves. More about I, Spy


  1. The first one is readable, but it looks awkward after reading the second one and seeing the events in the proper order. Good examples, Jordan.

  2. This is why we need out critique groups and beta-readers.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  3. Yeah surely need to give it an once over, as such things can make or break.

  4. There are so many things to consider--my head could explode. I'm seriously going to have to apply this stuff.

  5. It just makes sense, and most writers probably instinctively know that there's something wrong without being able to articulate what it is. They want to show the action, so they stick the cause in as an afterthought. I find this all the time in manuscript evals.


  6. Thanks for having me, Donna! Great thoughts, everybody—appreciate the comments!


Comments brighten my day.

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