Scene Sequels

If you’ve ever studied Dwight Swain or Jack Bickham you’ve heard about scene goals and disasters.  If you haven’t, check out my blog post on the topic.  Scene goals and disasters are great for moving your plot along, creating conflict and tension, and – my favorite – forcing you to be mean to your characters.

But sometimes what you need isn’t a scene with goals and disasters.  Sometimes what you need is a sequel. 

What’s a sequel you ask?

A sequel is

…the glue that holds scenes together and helps you get from one to the next. It is a flexible structural component, and it provides you with all the tools you need for in-depth characterization, analysis of motivation, explanation of character planning, etc.

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
(my all time favorite writing book!)

A sequel doesn’t have a goal/disaster but it does have four steps that the character will go through:

  • Emotion – the emotional reaction to whatever happened in the scene before (or the last scene this character was in)
  • Thought – thinking through what just happened
  • Decision – deciding what he/she is going to do about what just happened
  • Action – this will give you a new goal for that character, so you frequently can go into the next scene with the action/new goal.

What exactly do you use a sequel for in your story?

A sequel…

  • Provides a moment in the story for a character to process what just happened in a previous scene,often an action scene where there isn’t time to stop and delve into the emotional impact of what’s happening.
  • Allows you to show the interior effects of something that just happened. 
  • Allows the reader to get the reaction of a character who was not the pov character in the previous scene.   If you tend to head hop, instead of switching point of view mid-scene, use a sequel after the scene to show the other character’s reactions to what just happened.
  • They can give your reader a breather after an action packed or highly emotional  scene.
  • Allows the author to use the character’s thinking process to give the reader information about things that happened before the story started or in any time that has elapsed between chapters or scenes.
  • Helps control pacing (slower or faster)
  • Reveals motivation
  • Reveals a goal for a future scene.
  • Is useful when you need more than a simple transition

In every case a sequel allows you to show the process a character goes through while reacting to one story element and how they arrive at the motivation for their next actions. 

Sample sequel:

Joanna’s palms were sweaty as she stood in the deserted hall outside her boss’s office door.   If he figured out she was chasing myths again he’d never agree to her plan, no matter how interesting the cover story, and she desperately needed him to help her get the artifact here to Richmond.  It was the only way she’d ever get to see it in person.

And she had to see it… touch it… figure out what it meant.

She scrubbed her face and shoved her fingers through her hair.   There was no telling if he’d buy her story, but there was only one way to find out.  She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing the rapid thumping of her heart to slow down so its pounding wouldn’t give her away to Tom.  Tom knew her way too well.

She knocked.

Can you see the emotion?  It’s all over the place in this example – I tend to write that way.   Emotion points:

  • Palms were sweaty
  • Desperately needed…
  • Scrubbed her face and shoved her fingers through her hair.
  • Took a deep breath and let it out slowly, willing the thumping of her heart to slow down.

Can you see the thought?

  • If he figured out…the cover story
  • I was the only way she’d ever get to see it  — she had to see it…

Can you see the decision?

  • There was only one way to find out.

Can you see the action?

  • She tries to slow her heart.
  • She knocks.

Look at your current wip.  Do you have any sequels?  If you do, are all four stages present?  If you are missing one, it’s likely either the emotion stage or the action stage.  Make sure you don’t give the emotion stage short shrift.  It’s the number one problem I find in my critique client’s sequels (other than missing sequels!) and it’s the stage that really makes your characters real to your reader.

If you are missing the action stage check to see if the action is implied, or if the action is what starts the next scene.  The action stage is the easiest one to skimp on, but it needs to at least be implied.

You may also find that the four stages are sometime switched around — though I strongly believe the emotional reaction needs to come first.  You may also find that stages repeat, as in the example sequel above.  The emotion weaves through the whole sequel.  Thought is another one that can easily repeat in a sequel. 

You are likely to use sequels more often in the early part of your story, and less often later simply because later in the story the reader has gotten to know what makes the character tick already.  And while I haven’t done an exhaustive study, I think most “black moments”, that time just after the main character has experienced an emotional crises near the end of a story, are sequels.  The decision part of that black moment sequel gives the character a new goal and that propels the character into the climax of the story.

Keep your character’s character in mind. 

If you have a very emotional character then the emotion stage may almost overpower the sequel and the thought stage may be minimal.  Likewise, if you have a very logical, controlled character, the emotion stage may be only half a sentence and the thought stage longer.  The length of the sequel may vary by the type of character for the same reasons.  Someone very emotional may take longer to sort through everything and come to a decision.  Someone very unemotional may be able to cut to the chase of the decision in a sentence or two.  In this way the form your sequel takes subtly reinforces your characterization.

A great example of where to use a sequel is after a love scene. 

You don’t want to wander away from the action in love scene – no flashbacks, no logical thoughts about “what does this mean”, no planning for what needs to happen next.  You want the reader to be as lost in the physical and emotional experience as your characters are.  However, a love scene inevitably changes things between the characters, even if they don’t want to admit it. 

Following a love scene it’s quite common to have a sequel where one of the characters reacts to the love-making.  First, you describe/show the emotional reaction, then the character thinks about what just happened and what it means/what are the ramifications in a logical way, then the character makes a decision about how to move forward, and acts on that decision.  Which in turn sets up a goal for the next scene (and you are back to scene goals and disasters and being mean to your characters!).

Want to know more about sequels?

You can learn more about both scene goals and disasters, and sequels from Jack Bickham’s book, Scene and Structure, published by Writer’s Digest Books and usually available through bookstores/book sites.  I also offer a workshop for writing groups on this topic.  The next on-line workshop, Scene CPR: Scene Goals, Disasters, and Sequels, will be offered in March 2011.  Info will soon be available here.

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Craft of Writing Topics

One of the things I find difficult as a teacher of fiction writing is breaking down the different aspects of writing a story into discrete topics.  Pacing, for example, is affected (positively or negatively) by point of view choices, use of flashbacks, how compelling your characters are, balance of dialog vs. description vs. introspection vs. plot, conflict, sexual tension, character goals, scene goals, story goals… and those are just the first things that came to mind when considering pacing.  So how do I explain pacing to a writer without it becoming an overwhelming flood of ideas and examples? 

Fortunately, since most of my teaching is in reaction to something specific in a manuscript I can pinpoint the pacing trouble at that point in the story.  Often a specific pacing problem — say, too many flashbacks — once fixed improves the pacing of the entire story, or at least throughout large chunks of the story.  But this still doesn’t answer how to handle this in this blog. 

The Lake

The lake in Maine

It occurred to me (as I was sitting at the end of our dock overlooking a beautiful Maine lake last month) that the tag feature in this blog would allow me to focus on discrete topics — story goals, for example — and use tags to connect them to other areas of the craft of writing where they also are useful — say, pacing issues — in other posts.  I can focus on short, discrete discussions of specific craft of writing tools and still fill that need to show they are interconnected with many aspects of a story.  With links to other posts I can also make it easy for a reader to jump to other related posts without having to go searching. 

So, with that in mind, I’m going to embark on a series of craft of writing posts where I’ve  culled the specific topics from the major issues/problems I find over and over again in the critiques I do.  Among those topics are (in no particular order): 

  • Scene goals and disasters (already in the blog here)
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Point of view (already in the blog here and here)
  • Sequels (as in scene sequels)
  • Waffle words
  • Be mean to your characters
  • Pacing – reader questions
  • Pacing – flashbacks
  • Writing emotion
  • Conflict
  • Basic story structure
  • Notes from the Characters’ Union Rep (that’s me!) — also known as letting your characters be true to themselves
  • Dialog — tag, you’re it…

Clearly there’s a lot of ground to cover there but if you have a particular area you struggle with in your writing, or there’s some aspect of crafting a story you don’t understand, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to my list of topics.  I’ll even address those issues first. 

I’m not committing to a schedule for these posts since that depends a lot on how busy I am on the critiquing front and with my current wip but I’ll be aiming for two per month at a minimum. 

Happy writing! 

Laurin

Head Hopping – part two

Just as I was working on my own Head Hopping post, I got the latest issue of Randy Ingermanson’s monthly e-zine (he’s the Snowflake Guy) and he had a great article on the same topic.  He graciously grants reprint rights, so I’m going to step aside and let him have the podium today.  Info on subscribing to his e-zine is at the end of the article.

Head-hopping For Fun and Profit

Reprinted with permission

When I was writing my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES a year ago, I identified six common viewpoints used in fiction. One of these, “head-hopping,” is a point of view in which the author gets inside the heads of multiple characters within a single scene.

The technical editor on my book objected to the term “head-hopping” on the grounds that it’s a pejorative term. He suggested I use a less objectionable word.

My response was simple: “Head-hopping” is a standard term. Everybody calls it head-hopping, and I can see no reason to call it something else merely because somebody might object to it. The reason it’s a pejorative term is because head-hopping is almost always a bad idea. If I were to call it something else, pretty soon, the new term would also become pejorative because it would still be a bad idea.

 Head-hopping is one of the most common choices of POV by beginning fiction writers, and it almost always screams, “I am an amateur.”

 Beginning writers often object, “But wait a second!

What’s wrong with head-hopping? Tom Clancy does it in all his books. Margaret Mitchell did it in GONE WITH THE WIND. Jane Austen hopped heads all the way from Netherfield to Pemberley. Any number of massively talented authors have hopped heads. If head-hopping is so bad, why are all these bigshot authors getting away with it?”

That does make things murky, doesn’t it?

We’ll start with the second question first. If the bigshots did it, why can’t you?

Let’s remember that many famous authors have been alcoholics over the years. Just because somebody with massive talent was able to produce books while crippling themselves with a destructive habit, it doesn’t mean that you can get away with it.

It’s possible that you, too, have massive talent. (Do you? Think hard before you say yes.) If you don’t, then hobbling your writing might prevent you from getting published at all. Even if you do have massive talent, why in the world would you want to put yourself at a competitive disadvantage with the hundreds of other massively talented writers in the world?

Now to the first question. What’s so bad about head-hopping?

The answer to that question is complex. There are cases, in fact, where head-hopping makes sense, although usually in those cases, it’s not actually head-hopping, it’s an omniscient point of view. We’ll get to that in a bit. But let’s consider first where it DOESN’T make sense and why.

The purpose of fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (I coined this term several years ago, and it’s rapidly becoming a standard term among writers, for the simple reason that it makes loads of good sense.)

The most common way to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience is to use your most devious arts of deception to persuade your reader that she is one of the characters. This is often called “reader identification.” You want to make your reader experience the story from inside the skin of one character, (the point-of-view character).

As the story moves along, every emotion that your POV character feels, your reader feels too. If you’re writing a thriller, your reader feels the terror of sneaking unarmed into the terrorists’ safe house to rescue his five year old daughter. If you’re writing a romance, your reader feels the thrill of her bodice ripping as she falls in love with the dashing hero. If you’re writing a historical, your reader feels the despair of being a slave in ancient Athens.

To do that well, you must get all the way inside the skin of that POV character. You must see what she sees; hear what she hears; smell what she smells; touch what she touches; taste what she tastes; feel what she feels; and think what she thinks.

You can’t do that if you’re in two heads at once. This is a prime example of the old adage, which applies in so many ways in fiction, “One plus one equals a half.”

If you want to create a Powerful Emotional Experience by getting inside the skin of a character, then stick to one POV character in each scene.

But there is more than one way to create a Powerful Emotional Experience. Tom Clancy is quite adept at giving the reader the God-like feeling of knowing everything. In many scenes in Clancy’s work, the reader sees all; hears all; smells all; feels all; knows all.

This can work on a big enough stage, where the stakes are high enough. On a battlefield this strategy works great. When there’s any kind of sequence of events that is world-wide in scope, this strategy also works great.

If something horrible is happening in an inanimate object, such as a submarine’s nuclear reactor, then this strategy is the only game in town.

When the stage shrinks down to a few characters in one room, this strategy reeks like a rat. Why? Because the reader doesn’t want to be some disembodied omniscient being when there’s a convenient body to inhabit.

Your reader doesn’t want to be two people at once.

That’s confusing and disorienting and just plain weird.

Your reader wants to be one person in each scene. It’s fine to be some other person in the next scene, but your reader wants continuity within each scene.

Not all readers can voice this. But they can feel it.

If you’re hopping heads, your reader’s head gets a little pop with every hop. That forces you to work that much harder to make the emotional connection between the reader and the character of the moment.

Yes, massively talented authors today still get away with head-hopping. Some of them also get away with abusing alcohol or beating their wives or never changing their underwear. The smart writer doesn’t copy bad ideas, not even from massively talented authors.

Your annoying mother really was on the right track when you were twelve years old and she asked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?”

The notion of Point of View wasn’t well understood in Jane Austen’s day. Neither was the notion of germs. In Austen’s time, if somebody had a fever, doctors bled them a bit. Today, doctors have a much better arsenal of tools, and a doctor who bleeds his patients is almost certainly a quack.

Authors also have many more tools now. Use them. Jane Austen would have been a better writer if she’d understood Point of View. So will you.

Even when you’re massively talented.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 20,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Are you a head hopper?

Head Hopping: the act of switching point of view character mid-scene.

To switch pov or not to switch pov is one of those perennial discussions amongst writers, so let me say right up front, I strongly recommend one pov per scene.  

Here’s why: You want your reader to lose herself in your pov character.  You want her to imagine herself in the story. 

In order to accomplish that ultimate escape for your reader (living the life of a fictional character) you need to use deep point of view — you need to get into the skin and mind of that character and stay there.  If you successfully hook your reader with deep point of view, and she’s imagining herself as Jane, but then you suddenly switch into Tom’s pov, you are literally jerking the reader out of her experience of Jane’s life.  Most readers will forgive you, if the jerk isn’t too jarring, but then they’ll start to sink into Tom’s experience… only to be jerked back to Jane’s just when they were bonding with Tom.  As a reader I find this very frustrating.  As a writer, amongst other things, you are denying your reader the opportunity to wonder what Tom must be thinking of all this that Jane is experiencing.  If you make a reader wonder… she’s going to keep reading to find out what Tom’s experiencing.  If you switch to Tom’s pov mid-scene to show what he’s thinking or feeling right then the reader doesn’t have to read any further to find out.

The other reason I strongly believe in one pov per scene has to do with scene goals and disasters.  (If you aren’t familiar with scene goals and disasters read this post.)   If the pov character has a scene goal at the beginning of the scene, but you are in another character’s pov at the end of the scene, then the disaster loses its impact because the new pov character doesn’t care about the scene goal or may even be working against the scene goal, in which case what should be the disaster is either unimportant or is now a reason to celebrate.  What you end up doing is losing the conflict in the scene because you aren’t letting the reader stay with the character who has something to accomplish in the scene.

Obviously it’s up to each author to determine what works for her, but I feel that sticking to a single pov per scene makes for stronger, more compelling, more page turning stories.

That said, the one place I do regularly switch pov mid-scene is in love scenes, but not all of them.  Usually just the first one.  Personally, I want to know what both of them are thinking/feeling and you don’t usually have the dialog and action (other than the obvious!) to help show the non-pov person’s experience.

What can I say? Rules are made to be broken, but only when you are breaking them for a good reason.

Laurin

Drum roll, please…

And the winners of the birthday presents are…

Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham (my favorite writing book!) goes to Tina Glasneck!

The free 25 page critique goes to Anna G. — but I don’t have any contact info for Anna. 😦 

Anna G., if you see this please contact me at Laurin @ Wittig.com (no spaces).  If you know Anna G — I think she might be a Washington Romance Writers member — please let her know she won. 

If I don’t hear from her by next Wednesday I’ll let the random number generator genie choose another winner, so stay tuned!

Thanks to everyone who stopped by and left good wishes!

Laurin

P.S. (Friday AM)  Anna G has been located!

Workshop for Virginia Romance Writers

I had a wonderful time yesterday in the company of my friends and colleagues at Virginia Romance Writers.  I presented my new craft workshop, Scene CPR: Breathing Life into an Ailing Scene, then had a great lunch where we got to talk writing to our hearts’ content.

Gotta say, I love hanging out with writers. 

I got to say hi to old friends and meet some new friends. I’m sending out a big thanks to everyone who turned out yesterday! 

Laurin

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