By Mike Klaassen
You may be calling scenes and sequels by different names, such as proactive scenes and reactive scenes. What are the correct names for what I refer to as scenes and sequels? And does it really matter? As writers we take pride in finding the right word for each situation, so it’s pretty hard to argue that the labels we use are not important. But that isn’t the most important reason to correctly label scenes and sequels. Failure to adequately name something can reflect a lack of understanding (whales, at one time, were classified as fish). Understanding something isn’t just an academic exercise. Understanding a writing technique improves our ability to use that tool to its full potential, in writing and in teaching.
Let’s explore scenes first. The term scene is one of many in the English language that takes on different meaning in different contexts. A scene can represent a place where an event occurred, as in scene of the crime. A scene can represent an exhibition of passionate or explosive emotion, as in making a scene. In dramatic presentations (such as in theater, movies, and television), scene can mean the stage itself or the surroundings amid which drama is presented; or a scene can mean a sequence of events within the presentation.[i]
How-to books about writing fiction range widely in their coverage of the subject of scenes. Some don’t use the term scene at all. Others promote the concept of writing scenes without attempting to define scene, or they define the term with vague, rambling expressions.
When I started studying the craft of writing fiction, I was first exposed to the concept of scenes by Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997) in Scene and Structure (1993). Bickham gives much credit to his teacher and friend Dwight V. Swain (1915-1992), who wrote Techniques of a Selling Writer (1965).
Often we can learn more about a subject if we can properly define it. Swain defined a scene as “a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.”[ii] Bickham apparently recognized a need to expand on Swain’s definition because he described a scene as “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.'”[iii]
Each of these definitions has merit, but they lack the clarity and conciseness needed to be useful tools. Let’s get basic, here. What are we referring to? Swain refers to a scene as a “unit,” but he doesn’t say unit of what. Bickham describes scenes as a “segment of story action.”
Swain and Bickham were pioneers in the study of scenes and sequels. We owe them much, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be improved. Both were teachers, and I suspect they would be pleased to have their concepts refined and expanded.
To fully understand scenes, we need to look at the bigger picture of where they fit as structural units in written fiction. Words form phrases and sentences. Sentences comprise paragraphs. Two or more paragraphs with some common purpose are referred to as passages or segments of writing. Scenes could easily include two or more paragraphs, so it’s fair to define them as either passages or segments. Let’s start our definition of scenes with the phrase “A passage of writing that . . .”
Now let’s address the “that” in the above definition. What’s the that in a scene? The Swain and Bickham definitions of a scene include references to conflict, character, reader, story, action, moment-by-moment, on stage, and the “story now.” Scenes are sometimes referred to as units of drama, so I would add tension and suspense to the list. Rather than a concise definition, these terms seem to be more of a description of what an ideal scene should include.
To be helpful in troubleshooting our own writing, we need a definition that boils a scene down to its essence. Swain’s “unit of conflict” seems to come pretty close, but conflict is a compound concept that includes a character attempting to achieve a goal and encountering resistance that puts accomplishment of that goal in doubt. Resistance without a character and a goal would be meaningless. The pure essence of a scene focuses on its lowest common denominator: a character attempting to achieve a goal. With that in mind, I define a scene as a passage of writing in which a character attempts to achieve a goal.
Now let’s look at sequels. The Latin origin of the word sequel means to follow. Sequel can refer to people who follow, such as retainers. A sequel can mean next in an unfolding series, such as Jaws III. Sequel can also mean something that follows from an antecedent cause.[iv]
Other than the two by Swain and Bickham, few how-to books mention sequels. If they refer to the concept at all, they use terms like contemplative scenes, transition scenes, reaction scenes, reaction sections, scene setups, reflective passages, or aftermaths.
Swain defined a sequel as “a unit of transition that links two scenes.”[v] Bickham described transition as “a very simple device which provides a direct statement to the reader to the effect that a change in time, place or viewpoint has happened since the last scene.”[vi]
Bickham continues, “Such simple transitions sometimes are enough to serve as the bridge to carry your reader from one scene to another. But clearly, if you want to deal in any depth with a character’s emotional state, or show his thought processes as he analyzes his plight and makes future plans, or use his thinking process to give the reader information about things that happened before the story started (or in the time that lapsed between chapters), then you need something bigger and better than a simple transition. . . That “something”—the sequel—is the glue that holds scenes together and helps you get from one to the next.”[vii]
I cringe at Bickham’s reference to transitions as “a very simple device.” My book Fiction-Writing Modes identifies transitions as one of the eleven modes and devotes a full chapter to the subject. Admittedly, many writers of how-to books downplay the importance of transitions. Bickham does do us a big favor by noting the relationship between the subjects of discussion: scene—transition—sequel. In this article, we’ll leave the discussion of transitions at that.
Let’s define a sequel. If a scene is a passage of writing, so is a sequel, so let’s start our definition of sequel as “a passage of writing . . .” But what is the that in a sequel? Bickham describes a sequel as having three phases: emotion, thinking, and decision. That encompasses a lot, so let’s boil it down even more. Clearly, a sequel is a reaction to the ending of a scene, so my definition includes the phrase “. . . in which the character reacts to the resolution of a scene.” But this definition would seem to include a physical reaction, and if a passage is about a character’s physical reaction, then it is probably a scene rather than a sequel. While a sequel may include incidental activity, a sequel is mostly in the character’s mind, so I’ve added the word reflects to the definition. I define a sequel as a passage of fiction in which a character reflects on the resolution of a scene.
Swain and Bickham both used the terms scene and sequel, and they wrote comprehensively on these subjects, more so than anyone else I’ve read. Sometimes in recent years, the terms scene and sequel have been at least partially replaced with the terms proactive scene and reflective scene. As writers we value the preciseness of words, so why is it better to replace the single term scene with the phrase proactive scene, using two words? Why is it better to replace the single term sequel with the phrase reactive scene?—especially without defining scene first.
I believe the use of the terms proactive scene and reactive scene reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of scenes in the structure of fiction writing. The use of proactive and reactive as modifiers implies that they are subsets of a larger category called scene. If so, how is that term defined? How would the term incorporate passages that include elements of both proactive and reactive scenes and passages that are neither proactive nor reactive scenes? Difficult isn’t it? I suspect that’s why the proponents of the terms proactive and reactive don’t bother to define scene.
As I mentioned earlier, this discussion is not merely academic because our goal is to develop a useful technique for writing and teaching. A helpful tool for understanding fiction would be to have a comprehensive model of how fiction writing works. The definitions I have presented for scenes and sequels fit into a useful model of how fiction works.
Mike Klaassen is the author of Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores. You may “Look Inside” the eBook edition at Amazon.com.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction by Mike Klaassen. Copyright 2016 and 2022 Michael John Klaassen. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this article with others.
[i] Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, scene.
[ii] Swain, Techniques of a Selling Writer, 84.
[iii] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 23.
[iv] Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, sequel.
[v] Swain, Techniques of a Selling Writer, 84.
[vi] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 50.
[vii] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 50-51.