March 10, 2022

How Can We Recognize a Scene vs. a Sequel?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m answering a couple of questions about Dwight Swain’s concepts of scenes and sequels. We’re going to dig into how we can tell which label applies to any of our passages, as well as what’s a good balance between the two. Let’s take a look…

Recap: Types of Scenes and Sequels

Before delving further into discussions though, I want to make sure we’re all understanding the terminology the same way. If you’re already familiar with Dwight Swain’s concept of scenes and sequels, feel free to skip these definitions and jump down to the next section.

Starting with the basics of scenes, there are 3 ways we tend to use the word:

  • Setting-Focused Scene: The school-style definition is an event in a specific place and/or time. When the setting changes, it’s a new scene. (Note: This definition is almost never relevant to writers, as the other definitions make more sense for how we write.)
  • Storytelling Scene: A mini-arc of events that usually occur in a specific point of view (POV) (and sometimes a specific time/place). When the arc reaches a satisfying ending, such as a hook or emphasis of a point, a line break or chapter break marks the end of the scene.
  • Goal-Focused Scene: This is the first half of the idea of scenes and sequels, from Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. This definition of scene focuses on goals and actions.

In addition, we tend to use the word sequels in 2 different ways:

  • Book Sequel: If we write our books in a series, we’re familiar with a book sequel, which might include similar characters, settings, worldbuilding, etc.
  • Reaction-Focused Sequel: This is the second half of Dwight Swain’s idea of scenes and sequels. This definition of sequel focuses on character reactions.

In today’s post, we’re digging into the last definition for each of those words, and we’ll capitalize them to make these meanings clear: goal-focused Scenes and reaction-focused Sequels.

Scenes are made up of:

  • Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.
  • Conflict: The obstacles standing in the way.
  • Disaster: The outcome, what happens that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal.

Think: Scenes consist of Goals and Setbacks as characters take action to move the story forward.

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 (new goal or new attempt to reach old goal).

Think: Sequels consist of Reacting and Analyzing as characters absorb and apply the lessons learned.

So what are Scenes and Sequels? They’re simply a passage of writing that either shows a character trying to make progress toward a goal (Scenes) or shows a character reacting to the situation’s outcome (Sequels).

How Can We Tell Which We’re Writing?

In general, Scenes tend to be more plot or action-oriented (proactive), and Sequels tend to be more character or reaction-oriented (reactive). However, despite the fact that we usually want our character to be proactive, we need to use both Scenes and Sequels. A couple of years ago, I shared various ways that Sequels are an essential element of our storytelling.

In the comments of that post, Jenna Barwin recently asked:

“In the scene/sequel concept, what are the sex scenes? It feels like they don’t fall into either. I could argue sex scenes are, well, scenes because at least one or both parties have a goal–to get in bed together, but they fail the definition, because they lack real conflict. But they are also emotion filled, as we often see the action results in feelings throughout the same scene.

What’s your approach when analyzing scene/sequel–how do you categorize the romantic action?”

That’s a great question in general (no matter our type of story) because we want to know what it is that we’re writing. Or at least we want to know if our intentions match what we have on the page.

For example, we might intend to include a Sequel in order to touch on all the great things a Sequel can accomplish, such as:

  • help readers relate to the character and know what to root for next
  • give insights into a character’s internal goals and motivations
  • keep readers in the loop when a character pivots to a new goal
  • control pacing (slowing down or giving readers a breather from the action)
  • strengthen the story’s stakes
  • and so on…

But to accomplish those things, we have to ensure that we’re actually including that Sequel as we intend. So it’s good to be able to recognize the difference between Scenes and Sequels.

That said, there’s no simple answer to Jenna’s question because every sex scene will be different, just as every scene in general is different. Let’s dig deeper to understand why the answer isn’t so simple…

Scenes vs. Sequels: Look Beyond the Surface

As I mentioned in that earlier post:

That angry fight scene in our story, where the character isn’t thinking, just reacting to a setback? Whether the fight is with words or weapons, it might be a Sequel despite the “action.” What matters is what happens with the character’s internal reaction and setting up the next Scene.

In addition, like I explained in that earlier post with an example from the first page of my Treasured Claim novel, a small-s scene (like what we typically think of as a scene in our storytelling) could consist of many Scenes and Sequels. So a sex scene (or any type of storytelling scene) could feel like it doesn’t fit into either because it actually contains both, especially when we consider both characters’ perspectives.

Scenes vs. Sequels — How can we tell the difference? Click To Tweet

For example, a sex scene could start off as a Scene with one POV character’s goal (such as to get into bed together), but then the other character forces a Sequel moment (even if only a single line or short paragraph) where there’s a deeper emotional connection. So the POV character’s goal pivots in a new Scene with them wanting to make the experience good for the other person, which can then lead to a Sequel realization of a desire for a more serious relationship (which could then set up a new goal), etc.

In other words, the Scene/Sequel connection is often about a cause-and-effect chain. Each one sets up and causes the other.

Scenes are typically several paragraphs to pages or a whole chapter in length. In contrast, in modern genre writing, Sequels are typically much shorter, from a sentence or two to paragraphs or a few pages in length.

To determine whether any specific sentence or paragraph is part of a Scene or a Sequel, we have the look at the context around that passage. What’s its cause and what’s its effect?

  • Is the passage about conscious actions and/or moving forward after a decision and yet leading to (causing) a reevaluation, realization, or other internal/emotional moment? It’s most likely a Scene.
  • Is the passage about reacting to something that triggers a reevaluation, realization, or other internal/emotional moment and yet leading to (causing) a decision on how to move forward? It’s most likely a Sequel.

How Does Conflict Work in a Sex Scene?

Now, Jenna is absolutely right that the obstacles in Scenes, especially in sex-scene Scenes, might not look like what we expect. Remember that conflict isn’t just about fisticuff-style action.

The concept of obstacles for a Scene’s Conflict also includes internal conflict, reader or story tension, characters trying to avoid or suppress conflict, etc. Conflict can also be related to the overall story goal rather than just be limited to the Goal of the Scene.

Specifically, in addition to the obvious step of trying to get clothes off, the sex-scene obstacles for a Scene’s Conflict could look like:

  • conversation where they’re each trying to get a feel for the other’s thoughts
  • misinterpreting the other character
  • tension when readers know more about the non-POV character’s perspective/situation
  • power struggles for getting what they want
  • worries about what others will think of their activities
  • conflicting goals (such as between romantic desires and career goals that won’t work well with a relationship)
  • trying to maintain control over their own emotions and reactions
  • lying to themselves about their feelings or desires
  • being too scared to go after what they really want (such as expressing their feelings)

Obviously, some of those are more emotional or internal than others, so similar issues may also show up in the Dilemmas of Sequels. However, if those internal issues lead to a Scene’s Disaster rather than a Sequel’s Decision, we know they acted as a Scene’s Conflict.

How Does the Disaster Work in a Sex Scene?

That brings up the question of what a Disaster (of a Scene’s Goal-Conflict-Disaster pattern) could look like in a sex scene. A Disaster can simply be something that pushes a character into a reevaluation of the situation or of their perspective. So in some Scenes’ Disasters, the characters won’t reach their Goal, not because of an obstacle holding them back, but because something has made them reevaluate if they even have the “right” goal.

Goals, Conflicts, and Disasters — How do they work in sex scenes? Click To Tweet

In other words, something in the Scene can trigger an emotional moment, realization, or deeper desires of the Sequel. The trigger that sets off the Sequel reevaluation is the Disaster.

For example, in Treasured Claim, one of the sex scenes from the hero’s perspective has a Sequel end with his Decision (and thus Goal) to let the heroine lead. But then he tries to interrupt her compliments (Conflict), and she teasingly scolds him (Disaster), which then leads him to newly appreciate her strength (Sequel). Her teasing isn’t a Disaster from the perspective of breaking up the sex scene, but it does prompt his deeper appreciation of her, so it acts as the trigger for that Sequel.

Another option for a Scene’s Goal-Conflict-Disaster in a sex scene is to use a passive Goal, where the character is trying to maintain the status quo, such as “don’t fall for the other.” The Conflict of the Scene would be related to denying or avoiding emotions, and the Disaster could be them failing to suppress all those emotions. Then depending on at what point in the story the scene takes place, the Sequel might be them denying that those emotions mean anything (doubling down on a Decision to maintain the status quo) or them coming to a realization that the emotions aren’t so bad after all (maybe with a Decision to try a relationship).

What If None of This Seems to Apply to Our Sex Scene?

All that said, if we can’t think of any way that a sex scene includes Conflict or a Disaster, it’s possible the scene is gratuitous, meaning that it’s not actually adding to the story. In a strong story, sex scenes should still be scenes and thus change the story or characters in some way.

If there are no changes to their relationship, no internal realizations, or no new goals as a result, the scene might not have a point. Would anything change to the story, plot, or characters if we cut the scene? If not, it’s gratuitous. In that case, we could consider cutting the scene or figure out a way to make the scene matter to the story, plot, or characters.

What’s a Good Balance between Scenes & Sequels?

Now that we understand a bit more about how to tell the difference between Scenes and Sequels and can ensure we have a mix of both to create a cause-and-effect chain, what’s a good balance between them? Should we be aiming for a certain percentage of our paragraphs to be one or the other?

Unfortunately, figuring out a “good” balance isn’t as simple as just aiming for a certain percentage or number of paragraphs. The right balance is completely dependent on our story, our genre, and our goals for our story.

What's a good balance between scenes and sequels? Click To Tweet

Some genres emphasize action and plot over character and emotions. Others are the opposite.

On the other hand, some stories with twisty plots need more Sequels to explain the shifting priorities of the characters and their goals. Or some authors have goals for their storytelling to make readers work for understanding, and thus want to leave character motivations unstated.

In addition, the right balance will change throughout our story. Over the course of the story, the pacing needs, size of turning point (story beat), reader emotions we want to evoke, etc. all shift the balance needed. In some places of our story, we might need a Sequel that’s a page and a half long, and in other places, we might need only one short paragraph.

There’s no right or wrong answers. But we do need to understand our story, our genre, and our goals for our story to ensure we have the “right” balance to match our intentions.

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Scenes vs. Sequels: What’s a Good Balance?

Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing more about recognizing and balancing our use of Scenes and Sequels, including:

  • how Scenes and Sequels create a cause-and-effect chain
  • how a mix of Scenes and Sequels helps our story
  • why Sequels are important to our story
  • how to judge whether our Sequels are doing their job
  • what determines the right length for a balanced Sequel

Do you understand the difference between Scenes and Sequels? Can you identify them in your (or others’) writing? In stories you’ve read with problems, do you think a “bad” balance between Scenes and Sequels could have been part of the problem, and if so, in what way (bad pacing, low emotions, confusing motivations, etc.)? Does this post help you understand how to better use Scenes and Sequels? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

Comments — What do you think?

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Jenna Barwin

Fantastic answer! Thank you so much Jami. I really appreciate your insight into the whole scene/sequel thing.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thank you, Jami! Good wishes for St. Patrick’s Day.

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