By Melinda Goodin
Those who have read my work know that my stories tend to start with a bang — literally. If it’s not a space station exploding, it’s a church catching on fire or a laboratory or… And the pace gets faster from there. Critiquers have often commented that they ended up feeling breathless and a little confused by the end of the chapter. So much was happening so quickly that they couldn’t keep up. And when I’m strong on action and dialogue, my introspection and getting into my characters can be somewhat iffy. While this would be merely worrying news for an action adventure writer, it’s pretty bad news for a romance writer. How can I fix these sorts of problems? Mention the phrase “scene and sequel” to most writers and they’ll either look blank or their face will go pale. Scene and Sequel is an integral technique for writing, yet it manages to intimidate people. Peeled down to its essence, Scene and Sequel is a dynamic way of organizing your story so that it entertains your reader with a suitable pace and build-up of tension. The correct buildup of your scenes will make your reader keep on reading when she should be cooking or working or sleeping. And don’t we all want to receive fan letters that say “Thank you for a sleepless night, I just couldn’t put your book down.”
Giving the reader what they want.
Readers like pleasurable tension and curiosity. They want it to help distract them from their own world and it’s our pleasure and our job to provide it for them. We begin by presenting them with a story question. This is the protagonists and readers’ main concern throughout your novel. It needs to be established early and clearly so the reader knows what the stakes are, and so suspense and worry for the character will be created. Scenes act to set up a question and interest. Sequels acts to show the character’s emotional and intellectual response and their choice of the next step.
Throughout this talk I’m going to use one of my story ideas as an example, so I guess we’ll see if I can walk the talk In my example, Tamara has made a hasty promise to her bedridden mother: she will buy back an heirloom her rotten brother has sold. The story question I want to involve the readers’ curiosity in is: What emotional and financial price must Tamara pay to get the heirloom back? If I do my job properly, they will wonder about this and worry for her until the last page. To do my job properly, I need to keep this question in mind throughout the novel, present the key elements early and make sure they relate to the question, and answer it in the end. It’s the twists and turns that will keep this question in my readers’ minds without boring them. That’s where scene and sequel comes in.
Scenes and sequels help create those twists and turns, with a steadily progressive and tense pattern of smaller goals, conflicts and disasters to pull the story along.
In the first scene of my first chapter, my goal is to set up my heroine’s story question and involve the reader in an exciting and significant chain of events.
POV: In this case the choice is easy. I’m introducing my heroine, who has the most to lose. If you have several main characters/protagonists, it’s always best to choose the one who has the most to lose. POV is an important decision, which I discuss a little further on. Goal: I start by clearly stating a small scene-specific goal to worry Tamara and the reader: Tamara needs money to buy back the heirloom. Conflict: To work best, it must be moment-by-moment, to involve my reader. It should be exciting and dynamic, to grip my reader and make her care. It also sets up my story question. Tamara goes to the bank manager to convince him to loan Tamara the money he needs. Tamara has rejected the bank manager’s passes for years. He sees an opportunity to force her to pay attention to him and says he will consider it if she goes out with him. When she objects to his sexual harassment and continues to reject him, he becomes annoyed. Disaster: The answer to the scene question: “No”, “yes but” or “no and furthermore…” A Yes is usually a bad thing, because it’s the end of the conflict. They got what they wanted. Good for them. Now the reader doesn’t care because there’s no tension left. A flat No leaves the character with little room to maneuver and leaves them with no change. I choose “No and furthermore…” The bank manager investigates Tamara’s account and finds out Tamara has a small loan to help pay for care of her invalid mother. Tamara is a little behind in her payments. The bank manager says “No, and furthermore, you’re behind in the loan you already have with us. If you don’t pay it all back by the end of the month, we’ll take you to court to retrieve our money!” Now Tamara has no money for the heirloom and additional financial worries. The story goal is now established, along with the beginning of a chain of minor twists and turns. The conflict is the heart of the scene, building the suspense. The disaster hooks the reader on to find out the answer to the scene question, which is part of the story question.
Sequels are based on what happens when we receive bad news. First we are shocked, hurt, angered. We respond emotionally and the raw feeling precludes thought. Once we’ve calmed down, we start to think about what has just happened, try to work out why and what the implications are, and how we can take steps to redirect things. We decide on a plan and hopefully put our plan into action.
For example, let’s say I get yelled at for something. My first reaction is shock and tears – I hate being yelled at. My second response is to think about what happened. I may accept the reason for the yelling but be furious about the delivery of the message. Being a perverse person, I may then decide to ignore the message because no-one yells at me and gets away with it, and then take steps to make the yeller sorry. Hopefully a novel heroine would take steps to implement the advised changes, but I never claimed to be a novel heroine Let’s apply this to our writing. The sequel should follow the path of emotion, quandary, decision and action. So in the sequel I want to show: Emotion: Tamara is shocked and frightened by the harassment and additional disaster. Quandary: How will she be able to keep her promise and look after her mother now? Decision: She’ll take on another job to earn enough to repay the loan and look after her mother. Then, with a more stable financial history, she’ll apply to another bank for a loan. Meanwhile she can try to convince the current owner of the heirloom to at least hold it for her for a little while. Otherwise she’ll ask to be informed when it is sold. Action: She makes a call to the heirloom owner, then starts looking for another part-time job. So at the end of the sequel, we have hooked into a new short-term goal, the goal for the next scene. Can she get another job that will pay enough for her purposes? Will the heirloom owner agree to her request? Remember that your protagonist/s must act to get closer to their goal. Sympathetic characters are active, they try another tactic in the following scene. Character stasis is boring for the reader. And in this way, we start the scene, sequel, scene, sequel, scene, sequel chain that links together to form a story. Another way of using the sequel is to move over to another character’s point of view. Typically this is a switch from hero’s point of view to the heroine’s or vice versa. It gives us a chance to show the other character’s reaction to the conflict, and introduce an element of anticipation. For example, the scene may show the heroine confronting the hero for yelling at her and embarrassing her in front of others. The sequel may show his emotional response to the confrontation, so that the reader realizes he yelled because he was so frightened that she would get hurt, not because he was angry at her actions. But now she’s yelled at him and he’s feeling unjustly judged and… The conflict rolls on.
Other ways of looking at it:
If you find yourself getting confused by scene and sequel, another way of thinking about the chain is as cause and effect, or action and reaction.
Scene/Cause/Action = An event occurs, with a physical and emotional cause. These causes are linked to the character goals (internal and external). Sequel/Effect/Reaction = The impact is a physical and emotional effect. These force the character to react, then make a choice and act upon it, thus lending into the next event.
Action and Reaction from the Reader:
Scene and Sequel can also translate as Action and Reaction for your reader. The scene sets up the action, involving the reader in confrontation between the hero and heroine or between your protagonists and the villain. The sequel allows you to give the reader a break from the frantic action. While you take the time to finish off any exposition and set up the hook for the next piece of action, the reader is assimilating what she’s learned and having her interest maintained.
The horror movies are a perfect example of this principle. After each moment of mayhem, the movie calms, giving the viewer to catch her breath and put her heart back in her ribcage. That brief respite makes the next moment of action even sharper in contrast. The subtle dips and rises of tension are needed to keep the viewer’s interest. Without the breaks, the viewer may rise to the height of stress early in the film and then become jaded.
Deep immersion point of view:
This is yet another thing that makes authors around the world roll their eyes, but Scene and Sequel is part and parcel of the Point of View debate. Skilled and experienced writers such as Nora Roberts can get away with writing from several point of views. Unpublished authors are advised to avoid this, because deep immersion point of view (using one main character for a scene or chapter at a time) requires the author to delve into the characters feelings and motivations. This keeps the protagonists active and interesting. It also stops you from having important things happen without the protagonist knowing about it. And this means you need to know where your plot is going, and what your protagonist must deal with.
If you can develop this technique, your reader will be the heroine for the scene. She will know exactly how the heroine feels about what she sees as the hero’s betrayal and she will know why the heroine is acting as she does. Come time for the sequel, you can switch to the hero’s point of view and show his reaction to the heroine’s behavior and why he has acted the way he has. The reader will also know what he plans to do about this latest development, and the sense of “I know what the heroine doesn’t and it’s a doozy!” will drag the reader on past her bedtime or the overcooked pasta. What she doesn’t realize is that you’ve used careful manipulation of scene, sequel, point of view, dialogue and exposition to keep her interest active.
Give it a test run:
If you want to test this out, take your main character in a chapter of yours and change it to first person. Wherever the text uses your heroine’s name or refers to “her”, say I. See how often it stops making sense because you’ve jumped into someone else’s head. That’s the deep immersion point of view check. And see how often you character acts before a stimulus happens, or doesn’t respond to an important stimulus. That’s your scene and sequel check.
I did this with my first ever semi-finished novel. Not only was the POV bouncing from character to character like a tabletop dancer in a strip joint, but my character wasn’t responding to crucial things. If she did respond, it was the wrong kind of response. It can be a painful experience (oh, the rewriting!) but a valuable exercise.Remember, with scene and sequel you shouldn’t try to merge the two – a common mistake of beginning writers. Scenes and sequels have quite separate purposes and styles. If you want to see impressive deep immersion POV coupled with mastery of scene and sequel, read Barbara Samuel or Anne Stuart. They take you so deeply into the heroine’s head that you would swear the experiences were happening to you. And the reactions ring true to the stimuli. But don’t be surprised if you burn the dinner while reading
Scene and sequel gives you a sequence to follow throughout every scene; a sequence that will drag your reader willingly through your book. It’s a sequence of:
- scene to sequel
- action to reaction
- cause to effect.
The scene gives us:
POV CHOICE: The scene is usually written from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose.
GOAL: The scene starts with a short-term goal that character wishes to achieve within that scene
CONFLICT: The character faces opposition
DISASTER: The character cannot achieve the short-term goal, which makes the long-term goal look doubtful.
The sequel traditionally follows the scene. In it we see:
EMOTION: The character feels emotion (mad/sad etc.) because the short-term goal was not achieved
THOUGHT: After the initial emotional response, the character begins to think more rationally and see what she or he can do next
DECISION: The character makes a decision — either she or he decides to do something different to achieve the short-term goal or chooses a new one which will help achieve the main goal
ACTION: The character acts upon the decision. This stage acts as the transition from the sequel to the next scene
Bickham, Jack. Scene and Structure: how to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability , Ohio: Writers Digest, 1993
Eames, Anne. The last technique I learned before selling: Scene and Sequel. Romance Writers of America 1996 National Conference tape. Swain, Dwight. Techniques of the selling writer. New York: Doubleday, 1965. (Highly recommended!)
Appendix: Common errors in scenes and how to fix them:
The following is an annotated list based from Jack Bickham’s Scene and structure, but I’m sure we can think of many more.
Too many characters in a scene – remove the unnecessary ones. Mob scenes often confuse the reader.
Circularity of argument – if all they can say is “Did not!” “Did too!” “Did not!”…, is this scene serving any purpose at all.
Getting off the track – meander off the topic for too long and the reader will no longer care about the central story question. Worse still, the reader may have forgotten what the central story question is, in which case, you’ve lost her.
Inadvertent summary – Telling rather than showing. It distances and can bore the reader.
Loss of viewpoint – the debate of bouncing heads. Are you a POV slut or a rigid adherent? Popular authors like Nora Roberts might disagree with Mr Bickham here.
Forgotten scene goals – which translates to a useless scene. Rewrite it to match your intended purpose or get rid of it.
Unmotivated opposition – you don’t want your hero and heroine to get together, and there’s nothing really stopping them. Let’s throw in a really annoying argument or a simple misunderstanding. That should keep them apart for a few more pages. (Please, don’t do this. I’m being sarcastic, really!)
Overblown internalizations – purple prose and another example of telling rather than showing. Rewrite it so we can see how your character thinks and feels.
Not enough at stake
Inadvertent red herrings
Phony, contrived disasters
A few final points:
It acts as a critical moment in the character’s life, moving the conflict and the plot along.
Has a definite beginning, middle and end.
Requires technicolor details and moment to moment progression, so the reader feels as if they are there in real time.
This is usually where dialog is found
Should be show, not tell.
Establishes time, place, circumstance and whose point of view.
Requires a clearly specified goal, strong opposition and a damaging disaster.
The disaster should be logical but unpredictable. If it isn’t logical, you haven’t set it up properly in earlier scene/sequel changes.
Should be a minimum of 4 pages or 1000 words so there is time to build up the reader involvement and tension. Big scenes promote big reader interest. If your story is dragging, lengthen the drama by lengthening your scenes.
Be careful of the flow of your actions. Swain talks about motivation/reaction units which ensure this flow. Something occurs to stimulate a response. Following that is feeling, action and speech. This is the recommended order because it follows the stimulus/response pattern. For example: The editor you wished to sell your book to walks into the room. You might see her, panic, grab your prepared cue cards then speak your spiel. Alternatively, your most disliked workmate walks in. You feel disgust at seeing them, but need to stay polite. So you smile weakly, stride past and say a quick hello.
A couple of DON’Ts. Never flash back or summarize in scene: these things break the moment by moment flow and break reader involvement
The sequel’s function is to change disaster into goal.
You want to telescope reality and summarize what’s essential. This is usually where you tell.
Sequels have no length restrictions. A fast paced book will have long scenes and short sequels.
A sequel should have emotion, dilemma, thought and action.
Here is where you can summarize emotionally-non-essential action. E.g. of someone setting up a plan for revenge that has already been discussed in the previous scene.
You can create transitions from the frantic feeling of the dilemma to the calmer state of mind that results from knowing what their next step will be. This gives your reader a chance to catch her breath and makes the next scene more exciting.
Here you can also show the character’s chain of logic so the reader can understand what the characters’ motivations and causes for reaction. This can help if your readers don’t understand why things are happening. Lengthen your sequel so your character is more sympathetic and understandable.