We’ve all read the importance of creating tension. In fact, if you’ve kept up with my blog for a while, then you probably have heard me mention it a time or twenty. But Swain discusses something he calls MRUs or Motivation-Reaction Units.

These MRUs are another link that has greatly improved my writing style. It’s the idea that every moment has to be a moment of tension, ideally. Now I’m going to renege on that. Of course we don’t always want tension, but we do always want our readers to be able to feel what our characters are feeling.

MRUs will help with that. MRUs have 3 elements: a reaction, a feeling, and a response. What does that mean? Here’s a dead scene.

Greg grabbed Joni and slung her onto the couch. She could see the fury in his eyes. A heavy fist pounded into her jaw. She kicked him onto the floor and smashed his empty beer bottle over his head.

This scene is missing something. Before you read any further, reread the scene and think about how it makes you feel as a reader. Then read on.

**William is waiting for you to finish reading**

To some, it may seem fine, and honestly, you could keep it if you wanted to. But let’s add a few things.

Greg grabbed Joni and slung her onto the couch. She could see the fury in his eyes. A heavy fist pounded into her jaw. Her teeth jolted against each other. She could barely open her eyes from the pain. Her mind raced, but her thoughts were jumbled. Another fist soared towards her. She screamed and kicked him off. Without thinking, she grabbed his empty beer bottle and smashed it over his head.

Now reread this scene. How does it make you feel compared to the previous scene? And please don’t get stuck in this indefinite algorithm. You don’t have to infinitely keep rereading the scene.

***More waiting***

There seems to be more of a process with Joni. It’s the MRUs. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thanks, Isaac!

Here’s the first scene’s break-down. Joni jumps right to the response and kicks Greg off. Under most circumstances, a reader does not want this! A reader wants to feel the gradual fire rise up in Joni. What causes her to kick Greg off?

We know that she does it because she’s trying to protect herself, but we want to know what’s happening within her that makes her do it.

In the second scene, we have the reaction. Her teeth jolt against each other, and she can’t open her eyes. That’s the external.

Now the internal. This is the feeling. She’s trying to think, but she can’t. She’s not an assassin, so it’s not in her nature to strike. She’s just a woman who needs to protect herself. And the response? Yes. She kicks him off and cracks a beer bottle over his head.

I hope this helps. We’ll discuss this a little more tomorrow.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. Patty-chan

    The posts from the past two days have been intense situations, like murder and domestic violence. How do take something mundane and make it tense?

    The first “week” in my novel is full of scenes with my lead characters getting to know each other during lunch time at school, and then the big date on Saturday. I use a lot of humor via their friends to move it along. And there’s a little tension. But, as no one’s life is in danger, my reader is not likely to be on the edge of their seat and I’m worried they’ll lose interest. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got some tension. Most of the tension is centered around whether my lead male character will handle this date smoothly or fumble it somehow, which he has done in the past. But there’s not much, if any, external tension.

    Thanks for any help you could provide. And great post.

    1. William Stadler Post author

      Thanks for the insight. Seems that people are reading my mind this time around. My post for tomorrow deals with that to some extent. And keep in mind, tension is not necessarily all you want, though it seems that it’s all I’m talking about.

      You need interest. If the characters are getting to know each other, make sure that there’s some reason for them to be getting to know each other. Is there a school event that’s about to happen? Maybe you could throw some hints in there to show that disaster is on the horizon, without saying, “Disaster is on the horizon.”

      Anyway, come back for tomorrow’s post, and see if it helps at all.

      1. Patty-chan

        It’s the initial “I’m interested in you, lets learn about each other” phase, which works great in a real life romance, but not so much in a novel. Fortunately, I think I do a good job of giving plot- and motivation-relevant details along with the mundane (favorite color is not referenced!)

        Thanks. Already looking forward to it.

  2. robincoyle

    I am sharing this with a fellow blogger who contacted me off-blog to ask for advice on evoking emotion. This is exactly the kind of then she is looking for. Thanks!


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