Scene and Sequel
Scene and sequel always sounded so esoteric to me, a lofty action practiced by those in the literary world. It seemed precise and calculated and very dry and boring. Not at all the way I plotted my stories, which has always been a dash of pantsing and enough planning to know the key events, but none of the details.
I was wrong. Scene and sequel is something I’ve done since first putting pencil to paper and fingers to keyboard. It’s another way of describing pacing, cause and effect, action and reaction. Both are critical to building your story and without them it is flat, and your reader will stop turning pages.
Scenes are the moments of conflict between your characters, the “stuff” that happens to them, the establishment of the goals they want, the thing or person that gets in the way, and the failure to obtain what they set out to achieve.
Sequels are the transitions between scenes, the aftermath, when the character reacts to what has just happened, reviews it, and makes a decision that leads him to a new goal and further conflict.
The functions of a scene are varied.
- It moves the story forward by changing the character’s situation.
- The reader is involved by thrusting the character into opposition, creating tension as the reader wonders if the character will obtain his goal.
- It gives the character opportunity to grow.
- It shows the character’s strengths and weaknesses, values and beliefs.
Goals should be:
- Immediate enough for the character to take action
Scenes consist of three elements:
- The goal. Usually short—term, but tied into the overall story goal. The character must want something.
To fall in love is a weak goal, but to join an on-line dating service and ask your friends to fix you up with the objective of six blind dates in two weeks is a specific, concrete goal.
What the character wants, his goal, is either:
- To possess something. Love, peace, the magic elixir, the return to a farmhouse in Kansas.
- Relief from something. Poverty, boredom, the Ring of Sauron.
- Revenge for something. A double-cross, violence, the murder the one-armed man committed.
2. Opposition. Two starving dogs, one bone. Someone wins, someone loses. Readers love conflict. They can identify with the fight and root for your character to overcome his obstacles, get the girl and live happily ever after. Of course, if you structure your scene correctly, the obstacles become more insurmountable, the stakes are continually raised, and the hero doesn’t get the girl until he’s faced his worst fears.
How do you make it harder for your protagonist?
- The mortgage payment on the old homestead is due, and Johnny’s been unsuccessful in getting an extension from the bank’s new officer.
- Increase the obstacles in his way by having him receive unexpected information. Cattle futures are in flux, and he must hustle to get his herd to market to get the best price.
New complications equals renewed character effort which equals renewed reader commitment.
3. A logical but unanticipated situation upsets the character’s progress and leads to new questions for the reader. Can the protagonist succeed in lieu of new information? What will he do now?
- The dastardly bank officer (Dastardly Dan) calls in the loan.
- Rumors swirl about the railroad cutting through land east of town, right where Johnny’s farm lies.
- Beloved, innocent Nell spurns him in favor of Dastardly Dan, who plans on selling the foreclosed farm to the railroad for unlimited wealth.
- A snowstorm threatens to wipe out the herd.
- The reader is not engaged.
Solution: Anchor him by focusing on a character, even if it’s not the story’s main character. Revolve the action and drama around a specific character so the reader can gauge what happens and how he feels about it.
Solution: Establish it early, in black and white so the reader worries about the outcome.
Solution: Make the goal short-term, something the character thinks is achievable. Keep the goal forefront throughout the action; don’t let him lose sight of it.
Solution: Increase the stakes again if he doesn’t achieve his scene goal. Always have your character making choices instead of passively waiting for something to happen.
- There is a lack of urgency.
Solution: Add a timeline. Force your character to take immediate action. Johnny has to get his herd to the train depot before Friday when the bank note is due.
- There is not enough opposition or it is weak.
Solution: Beef up the antagonist. Give him strong motives as well and a specific, concrete goal mutually exclusive of your hero’s. A strong antagonist gives the protagonist focus and makes him stronger.
- The scene feels contrived.
Solution: The “Act of God” ploy can occasionally work, but the disaster should be organic to the character and the story. Maybe Johnny knew about the approaching storm but instead of rushing his herd to market, he spent the time with Nell. This compounds his problems, as losing the farm now becomes his fault.
The timeframe should be linear, with no breaks.
Establish the time, place, circumstances and point of view at the start.
Establish the character’s goal at the start. It must be clear, concrete, and explicit in order to intrigue the reader. Without a goal there is no conflict, no action and no reason for the reader to stick around.
If applicable, use a focused, unexpected hook to draw in the reader.
- “I saw Dastardly Dan with your gal last night.”
- “What’s this I hear about old man McGee selling out to the B&O railroad?”
- “The storm’s cut the telegraph lines between here and Summitville. Got your herd in yet?”
This is no time for flashbacks. In reality, in the swirl of action and opposition, your character doesn’t have time to sit back and reflect on how he arrived at this mess.
Flashbacks interrupt the story’s flow and make the reader lose interest.
Don’t summarize. You want to display every facet of your character’s agony. Don’t gloss over what he’s feeling.
Mind the old adage, “show don’t tell.” If Johnny’s upset because Nell is seeing Dastardly Dan, have him punch a hole in the barn door or chop a cord of wood with vengeance.
Show character motivation and reaction. Why does Johnny want to save the farm? Why should I care? What happens if he doesn’t? What does he feel when he learns of the call of the bank note? Nell’s infidelity? The approaching storm? Don’t spend a lot of time on his internalization, this is a place to show action, after all, but give me, the reader, reasons why I should stick around.
Don’t skimp on the scene’s length. Scenes are inherently longer than sequels. The importance of the goal needs to be established as well as the conflict and how the repercussions will affect your character. A satisfying emotional peak must be built, drawing in the reader and making life hell for the hero. Unanticipated information and problems must be introduced and the establishment of characterization explored. These all demand time. Save brevity for the sequels.
Okay, your hero has met his Waterloo and is defeated. What is his reaction? His state of mind? What will he do next?
Sequels explore these areas. A sequel is a bridge between two scenes. It is the aftermath, the place where earlier events are mulled over and a new decision made, which will, of course, lead to deeper conflict.
The function of a scene is:
- To give introspection. What just happened? What is the character feeling? Is Johnny angry? Upset? Jealous? Scared? Probably all of the above. What is his next step?
- Slow the pace. We’ve climbed the emotional peak with Johnny is his quest to save the farm. Now we need to take a breather and regroup.
- Translate the disaster into a new goal. The character will shortly enter a new scene with a new goal. How does he get there? By finding a reason in the earlier disaster to turn in a new direction (and more conflict, but he doesn’t know this yet. Your reader, smart person she is, already has it figured out and can’t wait to see what’s in store for him).
The character must act with reason and motivation. His decision – this or that – leads to a new goal. Does Johnny pack up and move to Cincinnati? If yes, he faces a new goal and new conflicts. Does he find a new buyer for his beef? How? Where? Whatever he decides brings consequences.
- Shorten reality. We don’t need to see the play-by-play of Johnny’s decision. We know it might take time for him to come to a conclusion, but we can’t afford to lose the reader’s attention.
Sequels consist of three elements.
- Emotional reaction. This can be expressed by what the character is feeling, dialogue, and his reaction. This is a good time to add detail, to show how he feels with attention to the little things. Make the aftermath of the violent storm reflect his mood. Does the death of a calf mirror the end of his dreams? Does his reflection in a pool of melted snow show the failure he’s become? In a few chosen words, you can access his feelings.
- What should he do? The alternatives should be equally unappealing. Move to Cincinnati? It will prove he’s a quitter, just like his old man always said. Find a new buyer for this beef? Will he have time? Good or bad, your character will have to puzzle out what action to take.
- Ultimately, your character has to make a decision. He has a new goal that is logical and plausible. Sure, the stakes are higher, but the risk is worth it.
Writing the sequel consists of three elements.
- Time must be compressed. Johnny enters the saloon and doesn’t emerge for a week. He sits in his darkened cabin, shooting holes in the walls. In effect, he’s a mess, but you don’t have time to go into his emotional breakdown. You want to keep the reader engaged, so his troubles have to be telescoped into one feeling, one feature that represents everything he’s gone through. Maybe it’s the discovery of a dead calf that spurns him toward the new decision to call in a few favors, send a couple of telegraphs, and, by jingo, find a different buyer.
- Your character has experienced a setback, but you can’t afford to wallow in his misery. He must pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. Bridge the time or space by sandwiching it between his most dominate feelings.
“I hate the snow,” Johnny mused as he pulled his collar tighter. “It will make driving the herd harder.”
But it was still snowing when he set out for Tulsa.
- Your character’s decision must follow a logical sequence. He’s had a chance to think about things, sort out the alternatives and chose the best one. Of course, this might be the lesser of two evils, but it is a choice and it will propel him into the next scene. He has a new goal; it’s specific, concrete and immediate enough to make him take action.
INTEGRATING SCENE AND SEQUEL
A balance between scene and sequel should be maintained. After all, what is a roller coaster without long climbs out of the valleys and exhilarating twists, turns and descents? A few rules can help you decide which should play a bigger part of your story.
- Scenes drive action, which propels the story.
- Each peak (scene) should be larger than the one preceding it. Stakes are higher, choices uglier, the probability of failure guaranteed the closer you get to the end of your story. Start out with small disasters and escalate them as you go along.
- If the story drags, make the scenes bigger to increase the conflict and resulting tension.
- If the story sounds implausible, make the sequel bigger to increase the logic of the character’s choices.
- Be flexible. Each story is different. Some demand more scene while others cry for a sequel’s introspection. Balance them as best you can. Experience will tell you to take a break in the action or if you need to heighten the conflict.
Writing is not an exact science, but two of the key elements, the amino acids of storytelling, are scene and sequel.
The above article first appeared in “The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel”. Available on Amazon and other distributors.
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Thank you for joining me to discuss scene and sequel, important features on writing a novel.