Crime Writing: Scene Structure and MRUs in Action

Crime Writing: scene structure and MRUsI’ve veered away from writing tips on this blog; there are far better teachers out there and a gazillion writing blogs. But lately, several writers have asked me how to write thrillers and mysteries that are nearly impossible to put down. blush I hate hearing that, don’t you? LOL My answer is always: study story structure, scene structure, and how to use MRUs.

Everything has structure…leaves, snowflakes, plants, you and I, animals, movies, TV shows, the list goes on and on. So it makes sense that novels would have structure too. There are several ways to entice a reader to keep flipping pages. I wrote a guest post on Writers’ Village — 10 Clever Ways To Keep Your Reader Enthralled — about different devices you can use. The first few ways I’ll cover here, only in more depth.

The overall story structure is crucial to make any story work, but so are scene, sequel, and MRUs, and too often they’re neglected.

A scene is broken down into two parts: scene and sequel.

Scene Structure

GOAL: What your POV character wants at the beginning of the scene.

CONFLICT: The obstacles s/he encounters in trying to reach that goal.

DISASTER:  Things are getting worse.

Sequel Structure

REACTION:  The POV character’s reaction to the disaster.

DILEMMA:  A situation where there’s no right answer.  If she does this, then this will happen. An impossible choice with no good options.

DECISION:  The act of making a choice.  What road will your POV character take? This decision is often the GOAL of the next scene.

And the cycle continues.

Crime writing: scene structure and MRUs

Motivation/Reaction Units — MRUs for Short

I’ve delved deeper into MRUs in the past… The Importance of MRUs.

Briefly, Motivation = external. Meaning, something happens to illicit a response in our POV character.

Reaction = internal. How our POV character deals with the Motivation.

Think of MRUs as the rhythm to scene/sequel over the course of an entire novel. Over and over we use motivation, then reaction, then motivation, then reaction. Once you start writing this way, it becomes second nature. If you’re unfamiliar with MRUs, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the use of MRUs can fix the pacing of your novel. To slow the pace of a scene, stretch out the MRUs. To quicken the pace, run through the steps quickly.

It’s always easier to learn when you see something in action. This is an excerpt of Wings of Mayhem with scene and sequel in blue brackets, the MRUs in red. Because Wings of Mayhem is a lightning-fast paced, psychological thriller, it’s the perfect novel to illustrate scene structure and MRUs and how to manipulate them to keep your reader glued to the story.

Here we go…

Back at the motel, I slid the keycard into the lock. [<- GOAL: To enter the room.] Movement inside the room warned me not to enter. [<- MRU MOTIVATION] I reached for my pepper spray, but found my back pocket empty. [<- MRU REACTION] When I took off earlier, I forgot to bring it with me. Now the intruder could use my own weapon against me. [<- CONFLICT] I glimpsed both ends of a narrow porch that ran the length of the building.

Without a sound I cracked open the door about an inch.

Someone was running water. [DISASTER] [MRU MOTIVATION]

Blood chilled in my veins. [REACTION] [REACTION FOR MRU, TOO]

The water shut off. [MOTIVATION]

Holding my breath, I pulled the door closed. My boots barely touched the wooden floorboards while I sprinted across the porch to find a witness for my upcoming murder. By the time I reached the front desk, I could barely speak, my breath ragged more from fear than exertion. I asked the pimply-faced clerk to let me in my room. [WHOLE PARAGRAPH IS MRU REACTION]

“But, dude,” he said. “I gave the spare key to your friend.” [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

“Friend?” [REACTION]

“Yeah. He said you were expecting him.” [MOTIVATION]

“Oh, that friend. I remember now.” I didn’t budge, my fingertips vice-gripped to the desk. [REACTION]

The scrawny, pencil-necked clerk squinted behind thick, black frames. “Dude, somethin’ wrong?” [MOTIVATION]

“Wrong?” My voice pitched like a preadolescent boy. “Nah. I’m fine.” Seemed like I was saying that a lot lately. [REACTION]

In the hopes of identifying the interloper I stared out the glass doors, into the parking lot. [<- DECISION] Delsin drove a black Escalade with tinted windows. None of the vehicles in the lot matched. [<- MOTIVATION] Course, he could’ve parked around the corner, out of sight from the main desk. That would be the smart play.

As I traipsed across the open porch, I envisioned Levaughn interviewing the clerk after my death. A spotlight illuminating his watery eyes; Levaughn drilling him with questions, blaming him for not calling security. “When was the last time you saw Ms. Daniels, or Ms. Barns, or whatever name she used? Why didn’t you walk her to her room? You knew how scared she was. How could you let this happen under your nose? What kind of shithole is this?” [REACTION is this entire paragraph as well as the next two. Why? Because Shawnee often envisions dramatic scenarios when she’s stressed. (Stress is a reaction). Also, the next two paragraphs show her acting a certain way, thus reacting to the motivation.]

With my babies inside the room leaving wasn’t an option. [MOTIVATION] I refused to sacrifice their lives to save my own. Before I reached the room I veered to my jeep to grab my bat that I kept in case of carjacking. [GOAL: entire paragraph]

White-knuckling the bat, I stopped outside the door, pressed my ear below the peephole. My heart thump, thump, thumped as I pictured the headline in the morning news. Heart Attack Kills Thirty-Year-Old Woman Outside Motel Room Door. [REACTION]

The door swung open. [CONFLICT] [MOTIVATION]

I lost my balance and fell face-first into the room. [<- REACTION] The bat sailed about fifteen feet and crashed into the television, a crack splintering across the screen. Katie McGuire and Berkley shot straight up in the air—claws out—then scattered from sight. On the stereo Alice Cooper belted out, “Welcome to My Nightmare” and Chinese food—the last supper—lingered in the air. [DISASTER] [THE REMAINDER OF THE PARAGRAPH IS ALL MOTIVATION (external)]

I pulled my nose from the carpet.[<- REACTION] Black-leather high-tops were inches away. [<- MOTIVATION] My gaze crawled up Levaughn’s khakis to his face. [REACTION. And this actually brings up another point. If it’s obvious by the character’s actions how s/he’s feeling, you don’t need to tell the reader. It’s perfectly fine for a response to be understood.] [MRU REACTION]

“I hope you don’t mind that I let myself in.” His head tilted to one side, an eyebrow raised in confusion. “I…ah…left my cell. Where’d you go? I thought you had a headache.” [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

“Aspirin,” I said breathlessly, brushing off the knees of my jeans. [<- REACTION] “I ran to the store for aspirin.” [DECISION: to lie her way out of it, which is also her goal for the next scene]

Levaughn never mentioned the bat.

The ring of his cellphone interrupted his response. “Where? Same MO? On my way.” He disconnected from the caller. “I’ve gotta run. There’s been another murder.” [CONFLICT] [MOTIVATION]

I cringed. “The Creator?” [REACTION]

He nodded. [DISASTER: he confirmed The Creator struck again] [MOTIVATION]


“Outside the courthouse.” [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

“The courthouse? That’s ballsy. Mind if I tag along?” [<-DECISION] [MRU REACTION]

Crime writing: scene structure and MRUsFor more on novel and/or scene structure you may enjoy the following posts:

How Story Structure Relates to our Lives

How to Write a Killer Hook

Pinch Points in Fiction Writing

How to Craft a One-Page Synopsis Using Story Beats


It’s hot and humid (my brain slows way down in the heat) and, like I said, I don’t do many writing tips posts anymore so I’m out of practice. I breezed through this fairly quickly. If there’s something you don’t understand, please don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s how we hone our craft. Do you use MRUs in your stories? Do you consciously structure your scenes, or do you wing it?

Wings of Mayhem Sell Sheet


Do you love face-paced serial killer thrillers?  WINGS OF MAYHEM will keep your heart racing and flipping pages, the storyline impossible to forget.

Shawnee Daniels — forensic hacker for the police by day, cat burglar by night — ignites the hellfire fury of a serial killer when she unknowingly steals his trophy box.

Described by readers as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS meets THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, WINGS OF MAYHEM is a whirlwind of heart-thumping, non-stop action that takes your breath away. Impossible to put down.

Shawnee Daniels breaks into the home of Jack Delsin, a white-collar criminal accused of embezzling money from his employees’ retirement fund. In Robin Hood-esque fashion, her intention is to return their hard-earned cash, but she stumbles across a shocking spectacle. Jack has secrets, evil secrets, secrets worth killing over.

A deadly game of cat-and-mouse torpedoes Shawnee’s life. Can she outrun the killer, prove she’s innocent of murder after Jack sets her up to take the fall, and protect those she loves before he strikes again?

Available on Amazon, B&N, Google Play, Apple iTunes, and Smashwords. Save 15% off the paperback when you order direct from Crossroad Press.

Star-ratings and/or reviews of any of my books are always appreciated. I love hearing from you!

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly.

In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show “Partners in Crime” on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio — menu bar).


  1. Using your own experiences is the best way to create a good story. Love your post!
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  2. No advice is the same and many writing websites are garbage. Keep sharing your real personal experience! It will help a writer out there. 🙂

  3. Interesting from the point of view of a reader. I keep in my memory all that details & always compare it with the author book.

    Your blog, help me to identify new author & old ones and be more aware of how they wrote a scene. Compare & Review with more knowledge.

    Some try & can’t to do as you & many Indie Authors are running fast & leaving behind. Others that had reach some “status” but then just sit and let the Turtle won the race.

    As always, Ms. Sue a pleasure to read your blog. And I received the thanks from the article from “The Coroner….” I’m sure was your doing.


  4. Very nice detailed look and break down, Sue. I have a friend uses worksheets with motivation-conflict-goal for each scene that she writes. She’s gotten so accustomed to working that way, it’s become habit for her.

    I still wing everything, but do see the benefit in having clear objectives in mind!

    • It really does become second nature once you get used to it, Mae. Your story sensibilities get so used to writing this way that if you veer away from it, it immediately feels off. The nice part is, it’s usually an easy fix.

  5. Wow! I love how you break this down, Sue! It’s certainly a useful tool for making sure that everything one writes ultimately serves the story. And it keeps interest going.

    And ps, I do hope you’ll choose to write more tips on writing. You have a lot to offer us…
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