Dwight Swain and why did the chicken cross the road? Hmmm.

Dwight Swain and why did the chicken cross the road? Hmmm.

I said I wouldn’t post about writing technique, but recently I tried to reply to a post that appeared regarding Swain and the MRU and my reply got lost in the ether. But it caused an itch and so I felt I ought to revisit it.
The gist of all of this is that someone posted how much they thought that Swain—he of the MRU–had convinced people wrongly that a formula is the road to success. But reading this made me realize that lot’s of people get the MRU(Motivation reaction unit) thing just plain wrong.
I think it’s because of the ‘motivation’ aspect.  The post tried to show how a psychopath would not fit with Swain’s rules. A psychopath  that has no apparent motivation to link to the plot (a la Carrie Fisher in The Blues Brothers). Yet, isn’t that the definition of a psychopath anyway?  And if it’s a very bizarre and obscure motivation it paves the way for comedy too. The point is that whatever motivates them is completely nonsensical from the point of view of a normal person–but it is still a motivation.
So whereas I agree that Dwight Swain’s teaching has little to do with character motivation in an overarching sense, it has a lot of relevance especially as regards flow in a story and perpetual plot motion: Scene objective– obstacle–outcome and setback–analysis–decision–new objective.
In life , you strive for something you want, then something puts a kink in those plans and you react. Cry, scream, steam, stew, rant, or bang your heads against the wall, and sometimes threaten the worst on whatever caused the setback. After all that, you sit down, have a coffee (Irish), face the dilemma head-on, then finally come to a decision that will clear the path to getting what we ultimately want…once again.

That’s it–end of.

What Swain tries to do is to make that flow natural at the scene/sequel level and at the more detailed level of MRU in terms of how the characters react to what happens in a natural, physiological way. Cause and effect, sentence by sentence.

The argument was put forward that, if we stick with Swain’s tool–pretty well explained here

–then we would lose the “intrigue” in a Why did the chicken cross the road, scenario. i.e. it would be formulaic–“The Chicken waited at the crossing. The lights changed. The chicken crossed. If it had been written this way, nobody would be asking “Why did the Chicken cross the road!”

Really? Well, if you played by Swain’s rules, using objective (O) and subjective (S) beats leading to a full blown subjective sequential Swain type reaction (visceral (V)/thought process(T)/action(A)/speech(S)–well okay no speech–it’s a freaking chicken, you’d get something like this.

(S)The chicken stood at the crossing, looking right and left, pressing the button repeatedly as if doing so would speed up the process.
(S)Come on, come on.
(O)From the deep shadow of the alley behind there came the clatter of metal against brick. Something had disturbed the overflowing trash cans as it hurried through. Something was coming.
(S)The chicken let out a strangled cluck.(V)
It’s wild eyes looked up at the lights, willing them to change.It stepped out onto the road, only to pull it’s scrawny leg back as a truck whistled past(V). Why were the lights taking so long?(T) Why? It swivelled its neck to look back(A).
(O)A black nose emerged from the shadow of the alley.
(S)Caught between an unpleasant death behind and a sudden end in front, the chicken stepped out just as the lights changed in its favour. Flapping its wings in flightless panic(V), it made it to the other side, and staggered to a gasping halt against a lamppost. When it looked back(A), the black nose and red snout had gone.

Okay, overblown, yes–but you get my drift. Not all of the VTAS have to take place every time–it’s the order that’s important. The fact is that there are going to be a hundred examples of people who have ignored Swain and done ok. But for most of us, I think you could do worse than to adopt some of what he says to at least gain some immediacy in our writing.

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