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I have been trying to practice the scene and sequel structure, including the use of MRUs and I find it alternately natural and frustrating.

I understand that the goal of this structure is to keep the story moving, but I've seen some pretty extreme opinions expressed about it. One was to write the chapter with your creative juices flowing and then edit it down until it contains nothing but this structure.

That works for many things, but I struggle to reconcile it with world building or exposition. I like to do the world building as part of the action, but occasionally you need to create a description of something. This is where I get stuck.

I don't see world building description fitting the MRU model at all. It doesn't line up with motivation or reflex at all and seems to only partly line up with feeling or rational thought/speech.

I can see that it probably has no place whatsoever in scenes, but if sequels have the same micro-structure, then I'm lost.

Does world building sit outside this structure altogether, or should it be somehow linked to the sequel (I'm thinking after, before the next scene starts)?

Or maybe my idea of the scale of these things is out of whack.

Note: Scene-and-sequel is a writing technique developed by Dwight Swain, wherein a book is divided into alternating segments of incident and reaction. MRUs are "Motivation-Reaction Units," a more granular part of the same theory.

Edit: I have since analyzed dozens of successful novels and come to the conclusion that this technique is largely bunk. The principle is sound: keep the action moving and ensure that your characters respond to the happenings around them.

But a number of things don't work out when you try to apply this in the way it's shown on writing blogs. For one, following every scene with a sequel leads to a sluggish pace, especially if you're writing something with a lot of action. Slower, more contemplative work may benefit from this, but most commercial fiction is simply not written in this way.

Second, the MRU structure doesn't work at all in the way blogs show it. There, in the simple examples, you basically have a sentence or phrase for each part of the MRU. In real fiction of significant length, applying it like that leads to uniform, robotic text. In real fiction, each part of the MRU may be a paragraph or more in length, and they may blend.

The way I've learned to apply it, is as a check afterward. For example, is the character's response properly motivated? Does the reaction follow the motivation? Is the motivation properly responded to?

In that way, it's still useful as a quality check.

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    Could you give a link to this "scene and sequel structure" you mentioned? I'm not familiar with it, but I do lots of world-building in my fantasy setting. I may have some insight to share after I read about it.
    – Oren_C
    Feb 4, 2019 at 9:05
  • Oh, it's everywhere. You can start with the Wikipedia page, or google for articles. An example of one that claims everything should fit in this structure is this: advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene Feb 4, 2019 at 9:18
  • I edited a brief explanation and links into your question, since this writing theory is not universally known. Feb 4, 2019 at 16:39
  • Thanks @chris-sunami, that's great. I suppose I see it everywhere because I've been researching it ;) Feb 4, 2019 at 16:50

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Certain styles and techniques suit different authors. I am more of a discovery writer and take the write with your creative juices flowing to heart.

We are all students, but we also have something to learn from each other. One thing I learned through horsemanship was that wisdom could come from anyone and it was my job to listen, assess and if I agreed, incorporate it into my riding or training.

This is applicable with writing. There are many theories, many methods. Learn from each and you will find yourself creating your own method that is natural to your style because it is yours.

I was reading an article written by a prominent author who said he wrote his first draft and submitted it to his publisher. He took a copy and brought it for critique. In his experience, rewriting and editing reduced the quality of his work. He trusted his first instinct, that enthusiastic energy that infused the page.

I think the wisest thing in that article is the advice to forget about rules and just write. Requiring your work to fit into that schematic could throttle it if it is not the right method for you.

When I think of some of the greats - whether it be Victor Hugo, Tolstoy or Thomas Mann; I think part of what makes their works last would have been edited out to fit that MRU structure. Hugo waxes poetic in sections and those passages shimmer with beauty. Magic Mountain might have been edited down to a novella or short story.

What would the MRU structure have done to Moby Dick? Melville interposed technical chapters on whaling to educate his reader and let even the most landlocked readers understand what his characters faced. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was based on a true story.

Write the story you have to tell. Use as much exposition and world building as required. Later, when you have reached the end, go back and see if you can tighten it up a bit without dissecting it.

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  • This is a good piece of general advice, but the OP specifically states that the querent is trying to work through this structure as a learning experience. Given that, I don't see this as an appropriate answer to this specific question. Feb 4, 2019 at 15:26
  • I construed trying to practice more literally
    – Rasdashan
    Feb 4, 2019 at 15:29
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Since you state at the start that you're trying to live into this theory as a exercise for yourself, I won't critique the theory itself (or even suggest that you just adopt it "in moderation"). So, taking the Swain structure for granted, how do you fit in world-building? The answer is simple. You should never try to "fit in" worldbuilding, no matter what writing structure you're using. Worldbuilding is important, but it is for you, the author. It builds a stage on which you can present the action. Any time you pause the storyline to shoehorn in all the cool ideas you have about the world, you're risking losing the reader.

Instead your worldbuilding should inform everything that happens in your book. Every "scene" and "sequel" should take place in a place you know well, mentally speaking. Every character action springs out of whatever backstory you know for your characters. I'm no expert on this theory or structure, but it doesn't seem to me to lack for opportunities for description. For instance, the sources I found indicate that the back-half of the MRU should be something sensory.

The dark jutting tower loomed over DeMarcus [Motivation, but also description of a feature of the world].
He nuzzled his face into his mother's side for comfort [Reaction].

If you have other things you feel compelled to include, ask yourself these questions: Why does the reader need to know things the character doesn't know? Why should the reader notice things the character doesn't notice? If this exercise has any value, it will be to force you out of your comfort zone in the direction of showing, not telling (and I say this as a writer who has no personal hard-and-fast rules against "telling" in fiction).

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  • I absolutely agree that the world should be a backdrop to the story, not some fourteen page interruption where I wax on about the cool place I dreamt up. But sometimes you need to give a description of the environment that cannot be reasonably combined with the action. For example, the character arrives at an unfamiliar place, the layout of which will become important. There is no real motivation, reaction or any of the six parts of S&S. I see these passages all the time in books I read, so I'm asking how/if they fit inside this structure. Feb 4, 2019 at 16:26
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    Given that most books were not written using this theory (and that it's prescriptive, not descriptive, meaning it's giving advice, not analyzing existing work), you'd want to make sure you're using one that did use it as your reference point. // With that said, I'd challenge you on why the reader needs to know details of the layout that the character doesn't know (or to note ones that the character doesn't note). // Personally, I'm not against "telling." But I'm also not the one who has chosen to adopt this exercise --its value is to force you to write without some common "crutches." Feb 4, 2019 at 16:34
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Exposition and worldbuilding are external to the character. They are the objective truths about the environment or situation, therefore they probably only fit in the scene-half of Scene & Sequel. The idea of creating the "perfect scene" is to only include exposition relevant to the "Goal, Conflict, or Disaster", in other words: exposition and worldbuilding set-up the situation.

MRUs (motivation and reaction) are internal to the character. This is the sequel-half where the character takes action, feels, or reacts as a direct result of the situation. This reaction is subjective and unique for each character. Exposition and worldbuilding do not belong here. They are deliberately not part of the sequel because they interrupt the action and break the emotional impact of what is happening right now.

No writing system is 100% perfect for all situations so you are obliged to make exceptions as needed for your story. The idea of Scene & Sequel is to minimize, if not completely eliminate, everything that does not directly serve the current scene. If you find exposition and worldbuilding are difficult to squeeze in, that is the Scene & Sequel method working as intended.

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  • "Exposition and worldbuilding are external to the character..." I think that's a great point and clarifies why you say it should go in the scene. I'm interested in your statement that the MRUs are only relevant to the sequel. It has always been my understanding that both scenes and sequels use them. In fact, the article I linked demonstrates their use with a scene. Feb 4, 2019 at 13:35
  • @CobusKruger, yeah, I read that. Apparently in that article worldbuilding doesn't exist and all writing is either "a setup" or "a punchline". There isn't room for anything that isn't a "conflict" and "disaster…. There is a similar writing tool called "Yes, but... No, and…" which has a similar idea that everything is a continuum of upheaval and calamity, but not as cause-effect. I think the real lesson is in constructing tight story beats that have an internal structure. Again the method is trying to avoid any unnecessary exposition or worldbuilding (as well as meandering plot lines).
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 4, 2019 at 18:46
  • "MRUs (motivation and reaction) are internal to the character. This is the sequel-half where the character takes action, feels, or reacts as a direct result of the situation." Quite the opposite. While MRUs, in Swain's theory, are a "must" in Scenes, they may or may not necessarily be used in Sequels. MRUs aren't really that complex. Think of them as stimulus-response. Every stimulus should have a response. Every response should have a stimulus...
    – Erk
    Sep 14, 2022 at 0:08
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I used to write everything in first person, which meant it was hard to find a way to give exposition. If, presumably, you're doing the same thing, there isn't a good way to give information the reader doesn't presently know about, as far as I know. It helps to imagine the reader having an interview with the MC. You could have them jump forward in time briefly to elaborate on something they weren't aware of at the time, but that feels a bit like a cheat.

However, if you write in third person, it's much easier to display the relevant lore, because you aren't trapped in the cranium of one character and can move freely between everyone.

It's not bringing a lot to the conversation, but I'm no expert yet, so all I can suggest in good conscience with awareness of that is to, if you aren't already, write in third person.

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The purpose of world building is not just to build a cool place. The world is a character in the story, it can be an opponent or an ally, a villain (an active danger to the hero) or a hero (a rushing river can save the hero).

It can excite the hero (food! Water! At last!), or terrify them (crash-landed in a barren desert). In the main part of "Castaway", Tom Hanks is a city-boy entirely alone, injured and stuck on a deserted island with no way off, for years. The island is his nemesis, he must figure out how to live, find food, fish, everything from scratch. The island is dangerous.

The landscape is a mercurial character in your story; sometimes a villain, sometimes an ally, sometimes offering different advantages to both villains and heroes.

You can fit this in your writing model; the world poses challenges. It is the Motivator, your hero is the Reactor.

Technically, the motive is to survive and thrive; but the opportunities and challenges are a function of your world building, and the challenges of the landscape, the social structure and norms, and the way things (like magic if there is any, or science if there is any) actually work.

If your world building doesn't actually matter to the story, then it might have been a nice hobby, but it wasn't writing. I personally do very little world building; because I only include elements that might influence my characters.

Think of your world as a character. It is there to help you write, not get in the way of your writing. Religion, government, culture, climate, weather, terrain, distance and technology or magic can all be used to help or hinder your heroes and villains. Navigating one's way through the maze of these changing elements can be a superpower in its own right, presenting opportunities and challenges to spur or thwart Motivation and cause Reactions.

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