I love when I make my readers think. Even better is when they turn around and make me think even deeper about an issue. *smile*
Yesterday, K.J. Pugh blogged about my last post (where I talked about cliffhangers and hooks) and brought up the issue of sequels I briefly mentioned. No, we’re not talking about book sequels, but about scenes and sequels.
In that post, I linked to two articles by author Janice Hardy that explained more about scenes and sequels. As Janice explains:
“Basic scene structure goes something like this:
Protag has a goal. They’ll act in way to achieve that goal throughout the scene. They’ll either get the goal, don’t get the goal, get the goal but there’s a catch, not get the goal and make things worse. Scene ends, because the goal has been resolved in some way.
Then the protag reacts. They’ll have an emotional reaction, think about what they just went through, and then try to figure out what to do next. This is the sequel.”
Janice goes on to point out that sequels can be anywhere from a single line to several pages long. But one other thing Janice mentioned in that article struck K.J. as interesting:
“Sequels have no goals to move the story forward.”
This idea of the protagonist not having a goal can throw us for a loop. Doesn’t that go against so much other advice we’ve heard about ensuring our protagonist is proactive and not passive, making sure our story is moving forward, maintaining the tension, etc.?
The Differences between Scenes and Sequels
The idea of scenes and sequels came from Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. The differentiation he makes between them is not the same as how we usually think of scenes. In his book, he says:
Scenes are made up of:
- Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene. This is where all that good proactive stuff for our characters come in.
- Conflict: The obstacles standing in the way.
- Disaster: What happens that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal.
Sequels are made up of:
- Reaction: How the character reacts to the Disaster.
- Dilemma: The choice the character faces because of the Disaster.
- Decision: What the character decides to do next.
That last point is key: What the character decides to do next. That is, the Decision becomes their new Goal for the next scene.
If we understand the point of sequels, it suddenly makes a lot more sense why many sequels are only going to be a sentence or two. Sequels are where the character adapts to the previous action, revelation, problem, etc. and decides on a new goal. In that regard, every scene has a sequel, even if it’s just the character deciding to try the same thing again.
“Traditional” Scenes vs. “Scene and Sequel” Scenes
We usually think of a scene as events that occur in a specific place and/or time. When the story jumps ahead a day or switches to a different location, boom, we have a new scene. That’s how screenplays think of them too.
But Dwight’s viewpoint defines a scene more narrowly. This isn’t good or bad. I’m just pointing it out so we’re all speaking the same language. Dwight’s view of a scene centers around a character’s goal.
What I find interesting about this perspective is that a traditional scene can thus contain several of Dwight’s scenes. Character tries A (Goal), but it makes things worse (Conflict/Disaster). Crap (Sequel). Character tries B (new Goal), etc.
Anyone who has studied Dwight Swain’s Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) might be able to see where I’m going next with this. MRUs are this same idea on a smaller scale. Something happens (Motivation for…) which causes something else (Reaction).
Everything Comes Down to Cause and Effect
At their essence, stories are one big cause and effect chain. A leads to B, which leads to C, etc.
We can see this on the micro sentence level with MRUs:
A shot rang out. (A leads to…) Susie jumped (B leads to…) and knocked the platter of filet mignon off the table. (C leads to…) Rover scarfed up their dinner before it hit the floor.
We can also see this on the macro scene level with Dwight’s definitions of scenes and sequels:
Susie wants to impress the handsome stranger by cooking a big dinner for him. (Goal A leads to…) But her good-for-nothing brother had downed the nice wine she’d picked up and gotten himself rip-roaring drunk. So drunk that he decided to start target practice outside the dining room window after she kicked him out of the house. (Conflict B leads to…) After dealing with his antics all day, she was jumpier than usual, and Rover had an excellent dinner. (Disaster C leads to…) Crap. (Reaction D leads to…) Well, she couldn’t let the handsome stranger starve. (Dilemma E leads to…) Hopefully, she could convince him to forgive her for serving a delivery pizza instead. (Decision F/new Goal)
Does it really matter with any of the above whether we call it goals, reactions, decisions, etc.? Not really. Just like with the small scale view of MRUs, everything is a motivation (cause) for what comes after it, and everything is a reaction (effect) to what came before it.
One giant cause-effect chain links events from the beginning to the end of a story. What matters most from a reader-who’s-unable-to-stop-turning-pages-even-at-2-a.m. perspective is that it all flows.
Why Sequels Cause Problems for Writers
The problems with sequels—those sections where the protagonist is adapting from a failed goal to a new goal—often come down to an issue of flow, and how they don’t link well to what comes before or after:
- Sometimes we have a too-long sequel during an inappropriate time.
Does the character have time to ponder and weigh pros and cons right then? If not, then a long sequel is ignoring the effects of the Disaster that came before it and how the character needs to decide now.
- Sometimes a sequel wanders or doesn’t seem to have a point.
Does the character reach a Decision, a new Goal? If not, then the sequel is breaking the chain of cause and effect.
- Sometimes a sequel loses the tension in a story.
Does the character worry about the consequences of the Disaster? If not, then the sequel isn’t linking to past and future story events by making sure readers are up to speed on the stakes, the consequences of failure, and potential future issues (foreshadowing).
Tips for Making Sequels Work
So let me share a few tips on making the most of sequels:
- When you’re writing, don’t worry about if a section is a scene or sequel. Think cause and effect, sentence-by-sentence, action to reaction, scene to scene, and you’ll never go wrong.
- Don’t worry about sequels being passive unless the flow isn’t working. The protagonist does have a goal in a sequel: Come up with a new plan. *grin*
- Just as with every other aspect of our writing, write tight. The sequel should be only as long as needed for the character to explore the consequences of the Disaster and reach a new Goal. That exploration can include all those foreshadowing, mood-enhancing, character development nuggets, however.
- Make the sequel feel “immediate” by weaving in external actions. Remember the two-paragraph guideline? (I blogged about the how and the what of the guideline as well.) Avoid sequels with several paragraphs all in the character’s head. If the story has time for a long sequel, then it has time for the character to do something while they’re thinking and debating.
- For those few instances of standalone sequels (these still follow a scene, but are separated in time and/or space, and thus have a blank line before them), use cliffhangers/hooks the same way we would at the end of any other scene. The nature of a sequel (internal thoughts and decisions) often leads to an Emotional Journey hook, but other types might fit as well.
To answer the question in this post’s title, yes, I think every scene (and sequel) needs a goal—in that the characters always need to be progressing toward something. Stories are about change. And if a scene (or sequel) is static, that’s when the pacing feels slow and the story seems dead.
However, as I pointed out in number 2 above, sometimes that forward progress might be as simple as a character knowing they need to come up with a new plan. They’re still striving toward something even as they’re reacting to what came before. And that struggle is what creates tension, keeps the story moving, and makes readers interested.
Have you studied Dwight’s scene and sequel or MRU concepts before? Do you agree they’re the same cause-and-effect idea on different scales? Do you think in terms of scene and sequel or in terms of cause and effect or something else? Do you struggle with sequels? Do you have any other tips to share on how to make sequels work?Pin It