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.


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

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

Formatting 101

cropped-manuscriptsoftfocus2.jpgOne of the very first things I learned when I started taking writing workshops, back in the dark ages when personal computers were so new most people still wrote on a typewriter, was the industry standard for formatting a manuscript.  It was based on typewriters and their limitations along with the needs of publishers and typesetters.

The technology available to writers has changed, but the standard format in most ways has not, and yet, again and again I see manuscripts that don’t conform to these very simple formatting requirements.

Here’s the basics:

Margins  = no less than 1 inch all around, no more than 1.25 inches all around

Lines per page = 23 – 25

Line spacing = double… not 1.5, and no extra space after a paragraph.  Double.

Font = this one has loosened up some, but generally Courier or New Times Roman, and always 12 pt.

Headers = a header is required on every page except the title page.  It consists of, at the left margin, the title of the piece, a slash, and your last name.  If you have a common last name, like Smith, use your first initial or full first name.  Ex:  Charming the Shrew/Wittig

At the right margin, a page number.  It’s up to you whether you want to put the word “page” before the number.  Make sure there is sufficient white space between your header and the body of the text so they don’t look like they run together.  The easiest way to do this is to simply add a return or two after the page number.  Page numbers must be sequential through the entire manuscript.

And the newest formatting quirk = only one space after a period.  For those of us who learned to type on typewriters where we were required to put two spaces after a period this one is a hard habit to break.  Autocorrect is your friend if, like me, you find decades of typing two spaces after a period virtually impossible to change.  Seriously.  My fingers have a mind of their own.

When starting a new chapter move your cursor about 1/3 of the way down the page and center the word Chapter followed by a number, either numerical or spelled out.  It’s up to you.  You can also choose to capitalize the whole chapter heading, or not, or underline it, or not.

And my pet peeve… folks, when you leave a line intentionally blank, say for a scene break or a change in your point of view character, put a symbol there to indicate you did this on purpose.  A simple # centered will do, or asterisks if you prefer.  1 – 5 symbols is commonly used.  But really, one is enough.  Sometimes it’s obvious that a scene break or pov change has occurred.  Sometimes it’s not.  Don’t confuse your editor/agent/contest judge/critiquer.

That covers it.

Why is this necessary? 

Some of it is simply the convention, but most of it is to make reading manuscripts and making comments, line edits and/or copy edits easier to insert.  It also made it easy to estimate the number of words in a manuscript before the days of word counters on the computer.

The number of lines of text on a page, which is bounded by the margins and line spacing, combined with a 12 pt font gives you a quick and dirty estimate of total word count.  For a fixed space font like Courier, you’ll get approximately 250 words per page.  400 pages then equals a 100k word manuscript.  With Times New Roman (a variable spaced font) you’ll get closer to 270-280 words per page.  So a 350 page manuscript is approximately 100k words.

As we move further and further away from paper copies all of this standardization of format may be less and less necessary, and indeed, there may be publishers who already have moved on to their own preferences for manuscript formatting.  However, unless you know for sure a publisher wants something different, following these simple guidelines will make you look like you know what you are doing.  They’ll make you look like you take this process of publication seriously enough to mind the details.

In short, they make you look like a professional and editors, agents, copy editors, and your critique partners will all appreciate your effort.


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! 


Top 5 Writing Books

j0438494Well, the youngest kid is back in school today, so I’m bidding a fond farewell to summer, and turning an excited eye towards fall.  I’ll admit it, I was one of those kids who yearned for school to start back.  I whiled away the hours reading in the summer, but lived for September.  

Let’s just say it, I was (and still am) a nerd. 

I love to learn. 

I particularly like to learn something new, then teach it to someone else.  If I were to teach a creative writing class this fall, the following would be the Top Five books on the reading list:

1.  Scene & Structure: How to Construct Fiction with Scene-by-Scene Flow, Logic and Readability by Jack Bickham.

This one is my bible.  I go back to it again and again.  Bickham’s points about scene goals and disasters, and sequels, help me plan my scenes before I write them, and help me revise them when the time comes.  They also help me make sure I’m being true to my characters’ goals instead of forcing them to move through the plot machinations I dream up, which in turn helps to make my characters more real.

I find myself passing on Bickham’s wisdom again and again to my critique partners and my critique clients, from the multi-published to the newly writing, and I’m amazed at how few people understand these simple but powerful writing tools.

2.  Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

This is a fairly new addition to my must have shelf.  I confess I’m transfixed by his “beat sheet” where you can test your plot against time honored story elements, but the guy has a way of making everything he talks about easily understood.  BTW, screenwriting books are great even if you don’t write screenplays.  Movies are short by comparison to books, but they are based on the same classic story structure.  I find it much easier to study that structure through movies.  If you are plot challenged, as I am, this makes for a great way to study lots of stories in a relatively short amount of time.

3.  The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus

Confession, I haven’t read this whole book, though what I have read has notes scrawled in the margins.  What I depend on for helping me develop both a story and a character is his chapter (#7) on “The Comic Throughline.”  This is a quick and dirty way to see if your character can carry the story.  I use it to help guide me in building a character, the steps acting as prompts for me to explore different aspects of my character and fine tune them.  I discovered Vorhaus’s (hilarious) writing book when a friend sent me a link to that chapter 7 (which Mr. Vorhaus kindly shares there).  You can find it here: The Comic Throughline.  I ended up buying the book because I thought he was brilliant and must have other gems to teach me.  He does.

4.  The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersby Christopher Vogler

This one is a little denser than the previous three, but it breaks down the mythic structure of stories, originally identified by the great Joseph Campbell, into steps you can apply to your own stories.  I like to dip into this one when my plot is meandering, or when I’m trying to see the plot of a new book, and aways find nuggets of insight that steer me back in a productive direction.

5.  Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films by Stuart Voytilla

This is a fabulous companion volume to The Writer’s Journey.  It takes movies (remember, that’s how I prefer to study story structure & plot) and breaks them down into the same categories that The Writer’s Journey identifies.  It also has lovely visual aids in the form of The Hero’s Journey Model (a circle that shows each of the mythic steps for each movie analyzed!).  What can I say, pictures are worth a thousand words — at least as a quick reference. 🙂


So, there’s my Top Five writing books, but wait…there’s more.  I have one more to share.  In New Orleans, where I once lived, they call this lagniappe (pronounced roughly, lan-yap) — a little something extra.


6.  Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide to Every Story Ever Told by Blake Snyder

This does for Save the Cat! what Myth and the Movies does for The Writer’s Journey.  It takes the beat sheet that Snyder explains in Save the Cat! and applies it to movies in ten different genres.  Examples galore!!!  Examples are right up there with visual aides in my preferred learning tools.


So, it’s September. 

School is back in session. 

Teacher Laurin says pick up a new-to-you writing book and see if you can learn something new about your craft.  Then share that new knowledge with someone else!  Heck, come back here and share it with me.  I’m a nerd.  I love to learn.


P.S.  If you have a favorite how-to writing book, please share in the comments!

The one writing book everyone should have is…

Scene and Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)


Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could only have one book on the craft of writing this would be the one. I read it (the first time) many years ago and it’s the one book I pull out on a regular basis to remind myself of the importance of scene goals and disasters, sequels, and the tricks of pacing. Easy to read. Easy to understand. I recommend it to every writer I know. If you don’t have a copy, get thee to a bookstore/site and correct that error right away.

View all my reviews at Goodreads.

Have you written today?


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