Scenes and Sequels

I’ve heard that one of the most important—and difficult—things for writers is getting the readers emotionally involved in a story. After all, isn’t reading all about having vicarious experiences? But because emotions are such a big part of a story, it’s important that the character’s emotions flow logically, that they have time to react before they act, that they take the time to think.

This is often broken down into what’s called a Scene-and-Sequel structure. Action occurs in scenes and the reaction in sequels. These “scenes” aren’t what you would normally think of as scenes in a novel or movie, where the scene ends when the set changes or something like that, but encompasses instead the action. (I know, I know. It’s confusing, but it’s not my terminology, so don’t blame me!)

Scenes, or the action, can be broken down into three distinct sections:

1. Goal. 

The character has to want something and be willing to take action to get it, even if it’s just a cup of coffee or a peanut butter sandwich. The character must have a goal.

2. Conflict.

The character must struggle to achieve their goal. Maybe the car is out of gas, so the character can’t get to the grocery store for the epic peanut butter sale without stopping at the gas station. But something has to happen to make the character struggle. If they want something and get it immediately, chances are that readers will get bored.

3. Disaster/Complications. 

The character fails to achieve their goal or when they achieve their goal, it isn’t what they expected it to be. Personally, I prefer the term complications instead of disaster because disaster implies something BIG. It can be something simple like the store only has chunky peanut butter and our character only eats creamy.

After the scene, the character needs to react to the disaster/complications in the Sequel, which also has three components:

1.  Reaction. 

The character has to have some sort of emotional reaction to the complications. Go ahead and show the character hurting. In our peanut butter example, you could have them prowl up and down the aisle looking for a missed jar or something that shows how they’re feeling.

And after the character has reacted, they’re faced with a:

2. Dilemma. 

In other word, the character has to make a choice and there are no good options. The character could buy the chunky peanut butter (ick!) or not buy any at all. But it’s important to show the dilemma and the character’s thought process—and it doesn’t have to be long or super in-depth—leading up to the character making a:

3. Decision. 

And this decision becomes their new goal and moves the character into another scene. In our peanut butter scenario, maybe our character decides to go to another store to get the creamy peanut butter and, voila! The character has new goal.

To give you an example of how this works, here’s a look at the first few chapters of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart, which is—in my opinion—a pretty awesome, fast paced novel, and a great example of the use of scenes-and-sequels.

In the beginning of the book:

Goal: David wants to join the Reckoners.

Conflict: He can’t find the Reckoners.

Complications: He finds them, but an Epic interrupts the Reckoners’ plan.

Reaction: David curses, tries to figure out their plan, and how he can help.

Dilemma: He could die if he interrupts or miss his chance to join the Reckoners.

Decision: He decides to interrupt and try to help them.

This continues with his new goal:

Goal: David tries to help the Reckoners by distracting the new, less powerful Epic.

Conflict:  But the Epic is armed and won’t hesitate to kill David.

Complications: David mentions working under someone who died two days ago.

Reaction: David freezes.

Dilemma: The Epic reaches for his gun. David can reach for his own—but rifles are slower than handguns—or he can run.

Decision: David runs.

This pattern continues through the rest of the book and you can see how, even though my brief summaries are not pretty prose or anything, that the plot is following a logical flow. You can understand the character and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

I went through a section of my current manuscript and highlighted with different colors (dark red=goal, red=conflict, yellow=complications, green=reaction, blue=dilemma, and purple=decision; I tried to keep it simple and have order of the rainbow match up with the order of the scene-and-sequel. Pity that Word didn’t have an orange highlighter). It was interesting to see where I missed parts and how adding even a simple line made a big difference in the emotional flow of the story. It helped me see where my character’s weren’t taking the time to react and where they weren’t actively moving toward a goal, something my characters struggle with.

Do you use a scene-and-sequel structure in your writing? How has it helped you?_________________________________________

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Trilogy

Writing a book is exhilarating, frustrating, satisfying, challenging, fulfilling, and let’s face it. 
It’s exhausting. 
Today I’m sharing some of the things that I learned while writing my YA trilogy. First and foremost: when you write a trilogy, multiply that exhilaration, frustration, satisfaction, challenge, fulfillment, and exhaustion by factors of three. 

If you’re thinking of writing a trilogy, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself first. If you’re a plotter, you may find it useful to work out these answers in your outline before you start drafting. If you’re a pantser writer like I am, you can still be a pantser and write a trilogy. However, you do eventually have to sit down and think about how you want to answer these questions along the way. 

1. What are the major themes for the overall trilogy? For each story?
Pick one or two common themes to weave throughout the trilogy, but also think about unique themes for each. Each story will build on the previous one so you don’t have to recreate the wheel with each, but you want to give your readers something new every time.
Star Wars had some great themes (e.g., the struggle to master The Force). Themes are essential.
2. What is significant (and new) about your characters’ struggles and challenges in each story? 
The first story needs to suck in the reader and get him/her invested in the characters and their struggles. The stakes need to rise with the next story and during a good part of the third before the epic resolution. (Think Lord of the Rings: Return of the King).
The struggle should be significant in each story, not rehashing the same old thing.
3. What is the overall ending? 
Even if you’re more of a pantser like me, you need to have an idea of the endgame for the trilogy. Where will your characters be in terms of development? How will the major issues that have been building in books one and two be resolved? 

Elements of your story may change from your original idea as you draft and revise, but you should plan out your endgame from the beginning.
4. Do the first two stories end at natural and appropriate breaking points?
You shouldn’t be resolving all of the issues that your character’s have in book one and two. Most of that should happen in the last book. Yes, cliffhangers happen (remember The Empire Strikes Back?), but your characters should be developing and at least be working toward solutions by the end of book one and two. Your readers need something to keep them going.
Cliffhangers for the sake of cliffhangers are not going to make your readers happy.
5. Does it need to be a trilogy?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer, but it needs to be asked. Do you have enough story for a trilogy? Do your characters need an entire trilogy to deal with their issues? Can you build those necessary stakes and envision a resolution? Are you invested enough in your story and characters to run that long mile with them? Because they’ll need you.
Writing a trilogy is like running seventeen marathons.
As for me, I walked, ran, and stumbled through that VERY long mile with my characters. 390K later, and I’m thrilled (and exhausted) to announce that I completed my first trilogy! 
(It might not even be my last, though I’m currently planning on writing a few stand-alones before I attempt another trilogy.)
In celebration of being DONE with my trilogy, book one is FREE through May 14.
Book two is on sale at $1.99. And book three? I just published it last Friday!  
There they all are! I’m super excited that my characters all got closure at the end of the trilogy (except for the ones that died…okay, maybe even those characters) and also super sad that it’s over. 


Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors of the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT.

Revision Tips: Scene by Scene

I have a love-hate relationship with revisions. I love making my manuscript shiny and new, but I also hate the in-between stages where everything is a mess (much like my kids’ room when they’re in the middle of cleaning it).

I also have to revise in stages, or I get so overwhelmed by the mess that I can’t function. I posted previously about revising for plot. Today, I want to talk about revising for scene.

What is a scene?

The general consensus is that a scene is a discrete bit of action: something that happens within a set location within a set time frame. But in writerly terms, a scene is often a bit more than that.

I find it helpful to think of scenes as miniature stories–just as a paragraph is often structured like a short essay, a scene can function as a very short story. Scenes need forward movement, and they need to have a distinct shape or arc to them. A scene is not the same thing as a chapter, as one chapter might be composed of many short scenes, or a scene may extend over several chapters.

The most commonly referred to definition of scene belongs to Dwight Swain, who broke down action sequences into scenes and sequels. (For a more extended definition of these terms, see here).

Scenes are made up of the following parts: goal-conflict-disaster

*Character goal–the POV character should want something in the scene. This doesn’t have to be the overarching story goal (for instance, a girl who wants to save the world might, in one particular scene, just want to find a few minutes alone to process things), but it should be a goal.

*Conflict–just as in the larger story, something needs to oppose the character and his goal.

*Disaster–something goes wrong for the main character. I have to add that a disaster in this sense doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation of real-life disasters. I think a disaster can simply be a plot point from which there’s no turning back. For instance, a kissing scene, though  normally a good thing, could also be a disaster in the larger sense if it proves to be a point of no return.

I like Janice Hardy’s approach here, because it’s not as formulaic–and it notes that disaster doesn’t *have* to be the only ending for a scene. But a scene ends when the character’s immediate goal has been resolved in some way.

The problem with having the character actually achieve their in-scene goal, as Janet Dean points out, is that it can often stop the story short. When writing a scene, you want to consider what will happen to the overall story if the character gets what they want.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire Destruction 1836

Scenes in turn, lead to sequels

If scenes are where the external action happens, sequels are where some of the most important internal action happens. Swain divides sequels into reaction-dilemma-decision.

*Reaction: how does the character react to the disaster that just occurred? This is one of the most critical parts for me, mostly because it’s one of the parts I always forget. Sometimes I’m so busy chasing one plot point after another that I forget the important emotional reaction to a scene.

*Dilemma: Characters should do more than just react, their reaction should also point them to a dilemma. For instance, I have been reading Laini Taylor’s lovely Dreams of Gods and Monsters, and in one scene, two of the characters find themselves kicked out of the place they have been sheltering (that’s the disaster). Their initial reactions are a mixture of shock and outrage, but they can’t dwell on the reaction for too long, because they’re faced with a dilemma: where to go next? They have virtually no money, and are accompanied by a third character who needs some kind of medical care.

*Decision: The sequel ends when the characters make a decision, which ideally leads to a new goal, which in turn leads to new conflict . . . and you can see where I’m going with this.

Jami Gold points out that ultimately scene-sequel is about cause and effect. Every event in the story should have some kind of clear causal relationship. She does warn about some common problems with sequels, including extending them too long without some kind of action.

This scene-sequel system is not something I naturally think about when I write. But I’m finding it very helpful as I revise, if for no other reason than it helps me make sure each scene is pulling it’s weight. If it’s not easily identifiable as a scene or sequel, chances are good it’s not really a necessary scene and any important information can be combined with a scene that actually moves the plot forward.

Some other helpful ways to think of scenes

Value shifts. In Story, Robert McKee offers another useful way to think about scenes when revising. He argues that scenes gain momentum partly through shifting values. That is, if a scene begins on a high note, it should end low, and vice-versa. And if a scene opens with two friends affirming their friendship, it should end with something that forces them to question their friendship (putting the value itself in flux).

Pyramid of Abstraction. In an episode of Writing Excuses, the authors argue that scenes should start and end with concrete details. We need to know where and when we are, and which characters are present. As the scene progresses, and characters are engaged in the action and dialogue that drives the scene forward, beats and concrete descriptions lessen. But as we prepare to leave the scene, writers need to reground the scene in a real-world description.

Questions for revising scenes:

  • Does the character have a goal in the scene (beyond your goal to show something about the character?)
  • Is something opposing that goal?
  • After the scene resolves, in either good or bad ways, do we see the character reacting to that scene?
  • If the scene goes well, how does this drive the story forward? How does it contribute to increased tension or problems for the character down the road.
  • After the character reacts, do they make a decision to act?
  • Are there sufficient concrete details to ground us in the scene?
  • Does the scene (or the scene-and-sequel) represent some kind of value shift?

What helps you as you revise individual scenes?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s currently working on a YA historical fantasy, set in nineteenth-century England and Hungary.