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I've been experimenting with outlining lately, and several days ago I was looking for some resources about outlining scenes/chapters (this was before I gave up and put together my own method of outlining scenes
(which I don't know yet if it works, but it was fun)). Anyway, I didn't find much out there about outlining scenes (and most everything about outlining chapters was for non-fiction), but I did come across this post: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/

WARNING: the author of the post in question is clearly following the Great Prophet method of writing about writing, the one where the author of writing advice claims that everything they say is pure gospel, but doesn't support their assertions.

For example, "There are plenty of other patterns people use. They typically work less well."
Uh huh. If you expect me to believe you, you really ought to support your assertion with examples of other patterns and why they work less well, because if I look into my favorite book and find that my favorite author uses an "other pattern" that works "less well", I'm going to think that my favorite author probably knows more than you do. Because I like the stuff my favorite author writes, whereas your writing (i.e. this writing advice that I'm reading) is just a bit grating.

(I did actually look in a few books, and didn't find in any of them this oh so wonderful pattern that's claimed to be the perfect scene pattern, at least, not obvious enough to be recognizable to me, though you could probably get it to fit if you were really good at the rationalization side of analysis. So. Clearly not a useful model for me.)

But I digress. The thing I actually wanted to talk about was not the scene description stuff, which I think is pretty much bullshit as a set of rules for writing scenes, but probably worth looking at in times of stuckness because if you don't think of it as a hard and fast pattern but as a set of possibilities, I bet it could be pretty useful.

But the really interesting thing was the idea of the motivation-reaction unit (MRU). This idea ate my brain, because 1) it's so simple 2) it really does make a certain kind of sense (at least to me) that you need a motivation to respond to and then you respond in a certain order with emotion followed by reflex actions followed by logical thought and action. Plus, I looked into one of the books I had sitting around and actually saw the pattern happening, more or less. Not quite the simple form that was being described (the scene in question had multiple characters and no clear main actor, and it was written in omniscient), but a recognizable variant, let's say.

And it's perfect for roleplaying, which is all about back and forth anyway.

But having had my brain totally eaten by this new idea of the MRU, I became scared. It's so easy, I thought. Really, that's all you have to do...? But it can't be that easy, which probably means that it's just seductive crap that will make my writing horrible.

So I went looking in some more books and decided that whatever this bit of writing advice said, MRU isn't present (at least, not recognizably) all the time either. But it's still a useful idea, especially the part about putting reactions in order based on the speed that they happen based on human physiology.

And then I got to thinking about tension (I like to think about tension because I don't think I'm very good at putting tension into my writing yet). And it occurred to me that if you write a reaction without a motivation that causes that reaction, you're raising the tension a little bit...

(Tension is expectation. This tension is the expectation that there will be an explanation to come if the reader keeps reading.)

It's a fairly minor sort of tension in some cases, because there are some actions that can be accepted without clear motivation, or for which the motivation is assumed (I went to work in the morning -- motivation is assumed) and sometimes it's hard to tell which kind of thing you're looking at, tension that's going to be resolved or tension that might just fall away into some sort of assumed resolution, they must have had a reason but the reason doesn't matter. Or there was a reason, but the reason is outside the scope of this story.

Tension will eventually fade away if it isn't resolved, or brought to the reader's attention again to raise the tension further (but if you do that, you'd better resolve it eventually!)

And then I got to thinking about the thing I call backfilling: for example, when you start the story in media res and fill in all the background information as needed. Backfilling is all about manipulating tension via an implication and expectation of motivations, because you have all kinds of reactions and then eventually you fill in the backstory which provides the motivations.

(There is a thing that I made up that I call frontfilling which is also all about manipulation of tension, but it's actually more about providing really strong but incomplete motivations -- for example, showing how someone developed a strong desire to become a dancer and how much that goal means to them -- with the expectation being (at least, I think it works this way) that these motivations will become a problem at some point (there will be an obstacle) and then there must of necessity be a reaction, because...that's just how things work. And because the motivations are so strong.

Frontfilling is more tricky and needs more explicit manipulation of tension to work, I think, because the expectation is not as strong as with backfilling unless the writer does more work.)

Back to the expectation of motivation, though. If you fulfill the expectation, it's tension. If you don't fulfill the expectation, it's tension that drains away, which should probably be avoided (though probably can't always, because sometimes when I'm reading I find myself expecting things that in retrospect the author clearly not only didn't mean for me to expect but had never even had an inkling that anyone might expect).

And if, instead of fulfilling the expectation, you subvert it, or make it bigger than expected, (expecting a puppy, get a Saint Bernard) then it's surprise :) But possibly less of a surprise than if there had been no tension in the first place...

Which suggests another use for tension. Sometimes the thing you leave out (thereby forming the tension of the expectation that it will eventually explained) is the thing that would be most difficult to explain, so you leave it out, and make a picture around it, maybe a whole bunch of different strands of tension, until the reader almost knows what goes in the hole that you've left, and then you explain. That's not really tension for tension's sake, that's more...tension for persuasion's sake?

And then there's the kind of tension I mentioned a few days ago, where you leave out something for no reason at all besides tension. I still think this is annoying.


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