What I’ve Learned About Using Scenes and Sequels

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One of the panels I went to at ECWC was about writing Scenes and Sequels, presented by Ann Charles, Jacquie Rogers and Wendy Delaney. These were terms I’d heard before from reading Jim Butcher’s old blog (I highly recommend checking this out, because he has a ton of great information archived, whether or not you’re a fan of his work), but hadn’t fully internalized. Not that I’m going to pretend to be an expert now, but things do make more sense.

From what I’ve gathered the terms Scene and Sequel originated from Jack M. Bickham, author of Elements of Fiction Writing – Scene & Structure. I’ve found all the books from this Elements series to be very helpful, by the way.

Let’s start with some definitions. The term Scene, in this context, is used differently than the common scene. Apparently there wasn’t any other term that could be possibly less confusing.So, a scene is basically just a sequence of events, taking place in a somewhat defined period of time. A Scene, on the other hand, has some definite parameters.

  • Goal- What needs to be achieved? What does the character want? Are they trying to get to sleep because they’ve been plagued by nightmares the last three nights? Or do they need to find their grandmother’s pie recipe before it’s too late to make dessert for the big family dinner? Whatever it is, it works best to make it clear what the character needs at the outset, so the reader knows what is going on.
  • Conflict- What is going to stand in the way of the character’s goal? Could be internal, or external, but it needs to be shown clearly, as well. In the first example, perhaps the character gets cornered on their way to bed by an upset ex. In the second, her sister-in-law has stolen the recipe box and must be confronted. Something the character needs to overcome.
  • Disaster- This comes near or at the end of the Scene. This could be the character does NOT achieve their goal, or the character achieves their goal, BUT. Up until the end of the story, your character should be fighting, in big and small ways. So at the end of the Scene, something happens that puts a kink in their plans. Maybe she gets to bed, and discovers it’s filled with spiders. Or she goes to find her sister-in-law, and finds that the recipe box has been sent to Goodwill. Whatever, just so long as it’s bad, something the character can react to.

Which brings us to the Sequel. This was the part I struggled with, and I think it’s because the sequel is a tricky, somewhat malleable beast. More on that later. Like the Scene, the Sequel has three parts.

  • Reaction- This is both the physical and emotional reaction here. Character finds spiders in bed: physical–> jumps back, screams. Emotional–> revulsion, fear. Character discovers SiL has donated recipe box: physical–> this is more dependent on the character, I think, since the disaster is of a more personal nature than spider, for example. Her physical reaction could range from striking her SiL, to getting really quiet or even breaking into tears. Whatever is appropriate for that character. Emotional–> Same thing, here. Who is your character? The important thing is to illustrate that reaction in some way.
  • Dilemma- This will often be internal dialogue, as the character sorts through their options. With the spiders: Burn the bed? Burn the house? Or very calmly get the vacuum cleaner and hope for the best? With the recipe: Track down the donation truck? Find a different recipe for pie? Find a different recipe altogether? Show the reader what the character is thinking, so they can identify with the character. This is an excellent place for character development.
  • Decision- What they choose to do. What, in their opinion, is the best answer to their problem? Illustrating the options they’ve gone through in the dilemma allows the reader to see the character’s thought process, and how they came to this decision. So, when they grab a six pack of Rainier, hop in their car and take off for parts unknown–because of spiders, or sisters-in-law–the reader won’t be left scratching their head. We hope.

So, why did this relatively straightforward setup give me so many headaches? Simple: it goes back to that ‘malleable’ qualifier I used above. The Scene makes sense, based on the knowledge of story structure I’ve grown up with. Beginning/setup, middle/fight, end/hook. Throw a thousand or two words down and there you go. But a Sequel can be a lot of things. Three lines. Two, if you’re really skilled. Or it can be another thousand or so words. (Or more!)

And that’s what I didn’t understand. I kept trying to fit my Sequels in a Scene box. Showing everything, when a lot of the sequel can be told. An example:

Maria’s head snapped up. “You gave it away?” Her chest clenched, panic stealing her breath. She didn’t have time to track down the box. Would anyone notice if she used a different recipe? Yes, undoubtedly they would. She’d need to do something different, then. Something crazy. Baked Alaska or cannolis.

Or croquembouche a la flambe. Her family would be too busy marveling at her skills to even miss Grandma’s pie.

Aaaand, Sequel. I think this is one of the most important things I took away from that ECWC panel. Your Sequel doesn’t have to–in fact, often shouldn’t–have as much screen time as your Scenes.

Sequels are dependent on genre. This was a revelation, and once they explained why it made so. Much. Sense. The Sequel is all about exploring a character’s internal workings. Thoughts, emotions, how they work in stressful situations. In a thriller, while you want some insight into the character, you generally aren’t looking for a book that teases out minutiae of any given reaction. Thus, the Sequels will be a lot shorter, because you, as the author, will be looking to keep that pace fast. However, in romances, this is a bit different. One of the big reasons people read romance is to experience the joy of falling in love. The pain of falling in love, too. That’s heavy emotion, and as a result more time will be spent on Sequels, to give readers more of that good, juicy stuff they’re looking for.

The other important hing I learned about Scenes and Sequels? They’re a good tool, but they’re only one tool of many to use. This should go without saying for all the writing advice, everywhere. (Except the golden rule: WRITE.) When I first approached using Scenes and Sequels my problem was twofold: poor understanding of the tool, and choosing to adhere to the Scene/Sequel setup without deviation. Not only without deviation, but plotting based on the idea. This will work for some people. It did not work for me. So when Jacquie Rogers got up and said she uses the Scene/Sequel approach when she gets stuck, something clicked. It doesn’t have to be a system to which one slavishly adheres to provide any benefit. It’s a tool, to be used when other tools aren’t doing the trick. Maybe that’s often, maybe only once in a while.

So I’ve been taking that approach with Dying for Divinity. I plotted like I normally do (Save the Cat beats paired with the 7 point plot structure), and while I’m writing along I’ll consider what the scene I’m writing looks like, and if it could benefit from a dedicated Scene or Sequel. It’s been pretty helpful, in terms of imparting more emotion into the story. I’m not great at that particular aspect of writing, so any tip, tool or trick I can use to get better there, I will happily employ.

I’m curous to hear from anyone else who’d used the Scene/Sequel approach. Love it? Hate it? Got something better? Let me know!

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Writing The Sequel | Phenweb Publishing

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