Thursday, June 19, 2008


Camy here, being totally goofy because I'm pleased as punch to introduce a friend of mine, Randy Ingermanson. He's just a funny and way cool guy, and in addition to that, he's really smart.

He's also one of the best writing teachers I know, and today he's guest blogging on Motivation-Reaction Units, which for me, personally, are one of the best writing techniques in my arsenal.

Without any further ado, here's Randy!


I critique a lot of manuscripts at writing conferences, and there's one problem I see over and over again. It's the most common problem I see. The usual thing that editors say when they see this problem is, "Show, Don't Tell."

Those pesky editors usually scrawl this in red ink at the top of the page, without much more explanation than that.

I hate that. Don't get me wrong--I love the editors, who are very nice but vastly overworked. I hate that they scribble those Three Horrible Words without explaining. They do it because they don't have the time to write a thousand-word explanation of what's wrong. But it's not very helpful to the poor writer.

The reason this is so unhelpful is that the editor has just TOLD you to "Show, Don't Tell," when what they really needed was to SHOW you how to "Show, Don't Tell."

Now there are things you really don't want to "show." You don't want to show the boring parts of a character's life. You want to tell those, as quickly as you can, so you can get to the good stuff.

The good stuff is the conflict, and conflict should always be "shown" and not "told."

How do you do that?

It's really pretty simple. When you break conflict down to its smallest pieces, each piece looks like one of these:

* You hit me in the face. It hurts like heck, so I kick you in the . . . um, shins.

* You say something snarky to me. I don't like it, so I make a brilliant and witty comeback.

* The car ahead of me is way too close when it hits the brakes. A little shock of fear sweeps through me; I instinctively jam on the brakes, but I realize that I'm still going to hit the wretched rattletrap; finally I swerve around it onto the shoulder of the road.

None of these little chunks is a whole story, of course. They're just a piece of the conflict. But they're the smallest possible piece that actually has conflict. If you break them down any further, you don't have conflict.

Each of them is what we might call an Action plus a Reaction. The Action part is what somebody else does. The Reaction is what I do.

What does all this have to do with "Show, Don't Tell?"

It has everything to do with it. Let me make a couple of observations:

The Reaction part is whatever your Point Of View character does. Since your reader is inside the skin of this character, you can (and should) show it all--her feelings, her instinctive reactions, her thoughts, and her actions.

The Action part is everything else that happens. Since the Actions are typically seen or heard (or smelled or felt or sensed) by the Point Of View character, you want to show those Actions the way your POV character would see or hear or smell or feel or sense them. You show them exactly that way, in real-time, and that's it.

Then you show the POV character's Reaction exactly the way he or she experiences it, in real-time, showing the quickest parts of the Reaction first, followed by the next quickest parts, and so on. Since a person's emotive responses are most always quicker than any action they can take, you generally show those first. Then you show any instinctive responses. Then, since the rational part of our brains act slowest, you show any rational actions or words.

If you look at the three examples I gave above, you'll see that I followed this pattern exactly: a simple Action, followed by a somewhat more complex Reaction.

However, each of the three examples is actually just a summary of what happens. In order to be writing real fiction, you need to expand each of these.

But the important thing is that if you've got this sort of Action-Reaction alternating pattern, then turning it from "telling" into "showing" is just a matter of typing the words. The reason is because both an Action and a Reaction are things that happen in a very short period of time--usually a few seconds. And it's easy to "show" something that happens on that kind of timescale.

Drat! I'm already way over my word-limit for this blog entry, so I need to stop here. Let me refer you to a much longer article on my web site for the rest of what I want to say about all this:

Bio: Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels. He publishes the world's largest electronic magazine on fiction writing, the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, and blogs daily on his Advanced Fiction Writing Blog. Visit his web site at:


Tina M. Russo said...

I concur the article on MRU on your website is AWESOME. I have the gist of it on three index cards above my computer and I find them indispensible to my writing.

Thanks for being brave enough to join us in Seekerville.

Inspire said...

Randy always has great advice. I'm spending the morning working on revisions. Thanks, Randy, for the reminder to show not tell. It's stuck in my head now, and I'll be thinking of it as I write today.

Kimberli said...

"The reason this is so unhelpful is that the editor has just TOLD you to 'Show, Don't Tell,'" when what they really needed was to SHOW you how to 'Show, Don't Tell.'"

I echoed this complaint just two weeks ago. Fortunately, I'd expressed myself a group of people willing to show me how to show. Their advice tied together the feedback I'd been receiving and brought me to that moment of "aha!" The MRU lessons take those lessons even further, so thank you.

Okay, guys. How was that? Did I sound professional? I hope so, I mean, this is great info and the timing is so perfect. But would y'all warn me when we have company? I'm totally underdressed.

Julie Lessman said...

Hey Randy, welcome to Seekerville!! Wonderful words from a master of words -- thank you!! You have such a way with words, in fact, that I learned more from your seminar at ACFW last year than any other! It's great to have you here.

And, Kimberli, Randy's such a down-to-earth guy, that you could be dressed in your PJs, and he wouldn't blink an eye!


Gina Welborn said...

When I first read "Motivation-Reaction Unit," I thought, "Today's blog is going to be about children or robots." Hmmm.

Thanks, Randy! I loved the explanation about why having a CP/judge/editor/agent say "show, don't tell" then not give any specifics.

And now I'm off to the dentist where I'd wish I was there for "telling, not showing." Ouch. My tooth is already aching.


Oh, my word verification is You Help X (uhlpx). I'm not sure who X is, but today it certainly was me.

Good to know MRUs aren't kids or robots.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Well, maybe he'd blink ONE eye. :-)

It took me a while, and more than one person explaining this to me, for me to "get it." I'm still guilty of telling when I should be showing sometimes.

Cat Schield said...

This explanation was very cool and informative. I'd read (or tried to read) Dwight Swain on this same topic and Randy made the whole concept clear. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

I'm off to apply this to my WIP.

Kimberli said...

Thanks, Julie. But yes, he would most definitely blink, and then he would run. Fast. lol

BTW, I was talking about a new crit group when I made that comment. Didn't mean to imply the good sisters (and brother) of Seekerville haven't been helpful. You've been very supportive since I threw myself on the beach, and those information-packed posts have been extremely helpful. And I needed help. Still do, so please don't kick me out. I just like to stick my foot in my mouth on a regular basis to study Action-->Reaction material for my work ;o)

Um, anyone for fresh-baked oatmeal raisin cookies?

My verification spells "slay". That can't be good...

Mary Connealy said...

Your motivation reaction units are something that I'm managed to internalize. I'm really aware of the show don't tell writing style and I try to keep it ever MORE in front.
In fact, I had a book that was running a little short and I was going through, looking for telling I could swith to showing.
In one spot I turned a SENTENCE into a thousand word scene that is one of my favorite in the book and now I can't believe I was going to skim over that luscious moment in my book with a sentence.
So keep that in mind too. Telling is short and sweet, Showing takes time, details, action, senses.
Which is good if you've got 65,000 word book contracted for 80,000 word minimum. :)

Thanks for being here today, Randy.

Mary Connealy said...

One other point, I often in contest critique say, This is Telling...if you don't know what that means you need to. Go find out.
or another favorite...POV Error...if you don't know what that means you need to. Go find out.
Or...Backstory dump (or info dump)...if you don't know what that means you need to. Go find out.
Hey, I can't do EVERYTHING for an entry.

Kimberli said...

"if you don't know what that means you need to. Go find out. Hey, I can't do EVERYTHING for an entry."

Excellent point, Mary. Thank you for making it. My frustration stemmed from the fact that I worked hard to learn the concepts and I thought I knew them. Critique indicated I did, but I still failed. So I gave up all goals but one: improve my writing. Shortly after, things began to change.

I took a harder look at critique and contest feedback. I read more on the subjects. However, I still thought I knew what people were talking about. Nope, and I think I know why.

Like Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, "it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves".

I don't know about others, but for me, my writing life turned out to be a series of steps, building blocks of knowledge that I had to learn before I could go on to the next. Show & Tell, MRU (I've been reading Randy's blog) and Deeper POV are the blocks I'm currently working through. What's next? I'm not sure. Once this spend-less/learn more hiatus is over, I'll start submitting my work again. This time, I'll know how to pay attention to the feedback I'm receiving.

Cat Schield said...

Here, here Kimberli! Every single time I think I'm feeling pretty pleased with something I've mastered, I realize that there's so much more to learn. I am amazed by those people that sell their first book. I'm one of those 20 book wonders that still hasn't sold anything. I guess my learning curve is steeper than most.

Randy said...

Hi All:

Thanks for your great comments so far, and thanks to my buddy Camy for inviting me to guest blog today.

I'm kind of embarrassed that I only got about halfway through the subject. I've been blogging about those pesky MRUs lately, so I thought it would be a cakewalk to write 400 words summarizing it all.

Hmmm, ever tried to walk through cake? It's not easy. You get chocolate up between your toes. Anyway, about 700 words into the article, I realized I was already way over my word budget. :( :( :(

I suppose I'm kind of an MRU freak, but it's because I see so MANY published novelists who still don't get it right. I'll be reading along, totally enmeshed in the story, and then WHAP--something knocks me back to the Normal World I was trying to escape. Then I ask what went wrong. Nine times out of ten, the author botched an MRU.

Most readers won't know that the MRU was wrong, they'll just think, "Well, it didn't feel right." And of course the editors will be right there scrawling "Show, don't Tell" in the margin in fluorescent red ink.

And Kimberli, it's perfectly OK if you showed up in your jammies. I don't mind. Just don't do that at ACFW or You Know Who will have you arrested.

Gotta run. I'll check in again later today...

Camy Tang said...

Gina--children or robots????? LOL :)

The one thing I really like using Motivation Reaction Units for is to heighten emotional impact in a story. MR Units are perfect for focusing my writing on emotions, because you can show an external stimulus and then write an emotional reaction to it.

By using that simple pattern of external Action and emotional Reaction, the manuscript suddenly is more emotionally vibrant


Camy Tang said...

Kimberli and Cat, you guys have hit the nail on the head. Author Brandilyn Collins once told me that authors, no matter how famous or how many books they write, are ALWAYS learning more and more about the writing craft. It never stops. There is always more to learn.

For example, I've understood and applied MR Units to my writing for years, but only recently have I been using them to focus on emotional writing. It's a subtle shift in purpose when I use MR Units that have helped me immensely.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

There are word limits on blogs????

Who knew?

I will heretofore toss this little bit of info into the circular file because I never adhere to it, and therefore pretend it doesn't exist.

Once again, Gina and I are a lot alike, LOL!

Randy! Thanks so much for braving the shores of Seekerville. What a pleasure to have you here. I was lucky enough to attend several of your classes at ACFW conferences and have a full appreciation for your humor and brains.

And I've used your Snowflake method to teach writing skills at workshops (although the thought of employing such a thing personally draws shudders to my lips and goosebumps to my skin. And yet for planners, it's the bomb. Totally.)

Good to have you here. I must head to work but I'll check back in later and see if they've properly nourished you.

Missy, you got some good Southern cookin' down there Sweet Thang????


Anne Barton said...

Randy, I've been wandering aimlessly with my WIP, and I feel like you've just handed me a map.

For the past few hours I've been writing MRUs (you're right, BTW, that is an absurdly riduculous term!) for the first 5 pages of my ms. It was not hard and - as Camy said - having that framework forced me to consider my POV character's reactions/emotions every step of the way.

Anyway, I think I may have just surpassed the word limit for comments. Thanks again for sharing your article. I signed up on your website and can't wait to read more.

Missy Tippens said...

Thanks so much for your great post, Randy! I'm going to pop over to your website to finish it.

You know, one of the most common things I see in judging is lack of emotion. And I think your MRU's would solve that problem!

Thanks again for joining us!

And Ruthy, I have some good ol' southern pecan pie. So simple to make, you know. ;)


Randy said...

One more comment on those pesky emotions. It is true that MRUs give you a constant reminder to put in some emotive punch. (And this is why readers read--to get that Powerful Emotional Experience).

HOWEVER, it is possible to put in as much or as little emotion into a given scene as you want, just by adding in more in the appropriate place. The nice thing about MRUs is that the structure tells you WHERE to put it in.

In some scenes, you may want to go light on the emotive stuff, and you can do that by minimizing the Feeling chunks of your MRUs.

In other scenes, it may be appropriate to go a bit heavier. This is easy to do--just make the Feeling parts of the MRUs longer or denser.

By the way, I highly recommend Margie Lawson's course on Empowering Character Emotions. You can get it off her web site at for a very reasonable price, and it may teach you a few thousand new tricks about how to show those feelings.

I certainly learned a lot from her course and am looking forward to meeting Margie at ACFW. She'll be again doing an Earlybird course on Thursday. I missed it last year, but this year I'll be there.

Mary Connealy said...

I always thought MRUs sounded like that food the military eats. So if I'm thinking like that, I'm not necessarily employing the skill.

And Kimberli, I know exactly what you're talking about. I remember saying to someone, we were talking about a novel I loved and I said, "I love head hopping novels. I just read one with three head hops in one paragraph."

Later I heard this same author talking about POV and how she adhered to it strictly. I went back to this very funny scene in this book and reread it with more learning behind me and I could see that the whole scene WAS in one POV but I didn't know enough about it to recognize it.

I mean it could be read as a POV jump but knowing more, I could see it truly wasn't.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

THIS POST...and the MRU aricle is AWESOME!

Thank you so much for coming to Seekerville and sharing your wisdom and knowlege...and for explaining things in a way people can understand and apply to their writing.