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August 27, 2019

How Can We Make Scenes Feel Stronger with Sequels?

Footprints in sand with text: Sequels Follow a Scene's Lead

My worksheets page is most often recommended for my beat sheets, but one of the other popular tools I share is the Elements of a Good Scene Checklist. The checklist (or the matching worksheet for use with multiple scenes) helps us identify whether a scene is truly necessary and contributing to our story.

Recently, I got an interesting question about scenes and sequels and how those relate to the Elements of a Good Scene Checklist. Specifically, the question focused on how (or if) we could use the Elements of a Good Scene tools to help us with sequels.

No, we’re not talking about book sequels, but about scene sequels. So before we dig into today’s question, let’s first explore the difference between scenes and sequels, as—like far too many words in the writing world—this is another concept we can think about in more than one way. *smile*

What Is a Scene? — Part 1

In school, we were probably taught that a scene encompasses 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. However, that definition isn’t always a perfect fit for how we actually write.

What if we write a section that changes place but keeps the same time, or vice versa with a section that jumps in time in one narrative chunk? Some writers might be confused of whether those count as separate scenes or not. (Hint: Often not.)

  • Single Scene with a Change of Place:
    … She followed her new boss into yet a different lab, this one stuffed with even more shiny equipment than the last. While she appreciated the grand tour, she might not be able to remember how to make it back to her car this evening much less be able to find any of these cool places again.
  • Single Scene with a Change of Time:
    She prepared to wait her turn. After five minutes, she started grumbling to herself. After an hour, she was ready to start a protest. Finally, after 85 minutes, the receptionist called her forward.

Or what if we jump to a new point of view (POV) character in the same place and/or time? (Hint: These usually are separate scenes. In fact, if we don’t write those POV sections as different scenes, we might be headhopping.)

Instead of dealing with that confusion, we might look for another way to define a scene, or at least look for a change in place, time, or POV. For many of us, we might simply think of a scene as the section of writing between line breaks (an extra blank line between paragraphs) or chapter break and trust our instincts to get it right.

What Is a Scene’s Sequel?

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.

As he explains, scenes are made up of:

  • Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.
  • 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.

In other words, Dwight defines a scene more narrowly, focused on a character’s goal, while a sequel is a transition to their next goal. That’s not good or bad, just another way of defining when a scene starts and ends.

Are Sequels Separate from Scenes?

This brings us back to our question about the Elements of a Good Scene Checklist and how it works for sequels.

Adam Bogicevic asked:

“Does scene refer to scene+sequel together, equaling one scene in this case? Or are you talking about scenes being either scene or sequel? and then I use the checklist for a scene, and then the checklist for its sequel separately?”

As I talked about in my post introducing the “Elements of a Good Scene,” the list of elements makes sure all our scenes are adding to readers’ understanding of our story. If every aspect of our story, from scenes to conflicts, exposition, dialogue, etc., has a purpose, our story’s pacing—the feeling of forward momentum—is stronger.

So the question here is really about: What do our sequels contribute to the story?

  • Should they be considered separately and have to follow the same rule-of-3 requirements as scenes?
  • Or is their partner scene’s purpose enough to justify the sequel’s existence?

These questions are both easy and hard to answer because there are so many different ways of looking at scenes and there are so many different types of sequels.

What Is a Scene? — Part 2

Personally, the understanding of a scene that works best for me is to think of each scene as a mini-story. Each scene has a goal, conflict/obstacles, and some sort of “resolution”—which is often a reaction, a pivot to a new goal, a new epiphany or priority or worry or vow, etc. The end of the scene brings everything together, just as a story’s resolution illuminates the point of the story.

What makes a scene feel complete? How can we tell if a scene has a sequel? Click To TweetSo for me, a scene is more about feeling emotionally complete from that mini-story perspective. It feels like it’s fulfilling its purpose. If a scene feels emotionally complete, I figure it has a sequel (even if just a single line) and don’t worry about definitions beyond that.

That’s how we might be able to tell if a section that jumps places or times is still part of a single scene. If the problem, goals, emotions, conflict, etc. within that section are all directly connected, and the mini-story isn’t “resolved” until the end of the section, then the section acts as a single scene.

On the other hand, if our mini-story feels incomplete, it might be because we have a Dwight Swain style of scene, but we’re missing the sequel—the reaction and new goal—that goes along with it. Sometimes, emphasizing a character’s reaction and decision to the scene’s events can add a sense of resonance, meaning, and completeness to the scene.

What about Non-Action Scenes?

All that said, there are times when we want to give readers a bit of a breather or delve more into our character’s thoughts or motivations. For those times, we might want to include a longer sequel.

How should we handle a long sequel to a scene? Click To TweetRather than writing a sequel that’s between a sentence and three paragraphs long, we might want to write a page or two or more and really dig into our character’s reaction and struggle to decide what to do next.

For example, sometimes after an intense scene or event, we might create a moment of reflection. A description of a battlefield after the conclusion of fighting could emphasize the devastation or reiterate the cost, making the character waver on their goals.

These types of sequels become scenes in their own right, many times with the usual line breaks before and after. They’re internally focused, often with the character on their own or keeping their thoughts to themselves, as the sequel-style scene explores layers of emotion.

In fact, depending on our story, the Black Moment turning point—one of the 4 major beats—is often a sequel-style scene. The negative event itself is the initial scene, and the fallout of that event—the decision to give up and the plot consequences or depression or both—is the sequel-style scene.

Keeping Non-Action Scenes Strong

For sequel-style scenes, we need to keep a few things in mind to ensure readers aren’t bored by pointless “navel gazing.” *grin*

  • Give sequel-style scenes a purpose by ensuring the character processes their thoughts and feelings toward a goal: Come up with a new plan.
  • In addition to including a character goal, the sequel should include other requirements from the Elements of a Good Scene Checklist, such as exploring stakes, motivations, character development, or internal conflict.
  • Increase overall story tension by creating doubt and uncertainty about the chances of success, or focus on reader tension by giving them reasons to be curious and want to read what happens next.
  • Whenever possible, weave in external actions every few paragraphs to keep the reflection grounded.

So to answer Adam’s question, a sequel will usually be the resolution of the mini-story of the scene. For those sequels, we don’t need to come up with their own purpose.

However, some sequels are emotionally separate. They have their own emotional journey or struggles or purpose for the story.

These sequels can be made stronger by treating them like normal scenes. We can ensure we write tight, create a sense of forward momentum rather than endless circling, end on a strong hook, and use the Elements of a Good Scene Checklist if we want to double check our work. *smile*

Have you heard of scenes and sequels before? Do you understand the purpose of sequels and how to use them? Does this post help explain the different ways we might use sequels? Do you have other insights into sequels or how to make them strong? Do you have any questions about sequels?

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Sieran

Hey Jami! It looks like I mix scenes with sequels, maybe because I read a lot of books where thoughts and reflections are integrated into the scenes. (E.g. We see thoughts after a line of dialogue every now and then. So when character A says something, character B has an emotional reaction to their words, which makes character B have certain thoughts and sometimes even memories. Some thoughts/internal monologues can be long and last several paragraphs too.) Thoughts and reflections are kind of the same as internal monologues/internal dialogues, right? I realized that I enjoy reading long-ish internal monologues, and that I could do more of these monologues myself. My dialogues tend to be too quick, so having more thinking and reflection moments throughout the scene, could slow down the pace and give the reader more time to breathe. To elaborate on this issue, my dialogues sometimes feel too choppy, rapid, and tiring to read. I re-read some dialogue scenes from my favorite books lately. While these dialogue scenes were very long, they didn’t feel tiresome; they were engaging all throughout. One reason could be because the author created a varied, pleasant pace. So the scene slows down and speeds up from time to time, rather than rushing onward with barely a break. We often talk about the problem of a scene being too slow and bogged down. But we rarely talk about the problem of a scene being too fast and exhausting to keep up with. On a sort…  — Read More »

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