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?
- 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.
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.
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.
Filed under: Craft of Writing, Favorite Books, Writing Workshops | Tagged: Craft of Writing, Dwight V. Swain, Emotion, head hopping, how-to, Jack Bickham, sequels, Writing | Leave a comment »