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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.