by Mike Klaassen
Scene and sequel are two of the most important components of plot, but they also seem to be two of the least understood. If plot were an engine, scene and sequel would be the pistons powering the drive shaft. Writers striving to turbocharge their writing might want to fine-tune their use of scene and sequel.
Let’s put plot structure in context. On a microlevel, plot consists of action and reaction. On a macrolevel, plot has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. But plot also has a midlevel structure: scene and sequel. Scene is a unit of drama—where the action occurs. Then, after a transition of some sort, comes the sequel—an emotional reaction and regrouping, an aftermath.
The structures of scene and sequel are quite different, and they serve entirely different purposes. Many how-to books depict the rising action of a story as a jagged line, or stairway. What they fail to explain is that the up-thrust lines represent scenes, while the down-sloping lines represent sequels. A scene drives the story forward like a wave racing up the beach. A sequel pulls the wave back and gathers strength for the next scene to surge up the beach even farther than the previous scene. A novel without scenes would be boring, but without sequels, a story is just one event after another.
Let’s take a closer look at scenes. Fiction-writing books mention at least a few of the following as being important to plot: tension, suspense, resolution, motivation, goals, stakes, obstacles, conflict, success, and failure. But most don’t mention all of these elements, nor do they explain how they work together as part of a scene.
Basically, this is how a fully developed scene works.
In one scene of my young-adult novel Cracks, the main character is driving an old Chevy Suburban through the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Before he accomplishes his goal of reaching the highway, he must fend off the other characters, navigate a winding mountain road, and avoid hazards created by earthquakes. The scene ends in disaster which sets up a sequel and, ultimately, the rest of the story. Once the scene has reached its resolution, the scene is over. And after an appropriate transition, the sequel may begin.
Jack M. Bickham, in Scene and Structure, presents a comprehensive explanation of sequel and its use. Basically, this is how a fully developed sequel works:
In my novel The Brute, a sixteen-year-old boy is frustrated in his attempt to summon emergency help. A flooded creek blocks his route from the ranch house to the highway. Exhausted and discouraged, he plops down on an outcropping of rock. He begins to think the situation through, to review his predicament, and to analyze it. A plan emerges. He makes a decision to act, then proceeds to the next scene with a clear goal in mind.
One of the advantages of writing in scenes and sequels is flexibility. To meet the pacing needs of the story, scenes and sequels and their various components may be lengthened, shortened, skipped, or reversed in order. As Bickham explains, scenes and sequels may be difficult to recognize in published novels precisely because authors have varied their use to fit the needs of the story. Flexibility in the use of scene and sequel allows the author to create an emotional roller coaster of ups, downs, twists, turns, and loops to engage and entertain the reader.
If your writing lacks get-up-and-go or seems to sputter like an engine in need of maintenance, maybe it’s time for an overhaul of your scenes and sequels.
Michael John Klaassen
Mike Klaassen's book Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction is available for order in paperback and ebook editions at traditional and online bookstores everywhere. Order your copy today.
by Mike Klaassen
The following prototype builds on information presented in Techniques of a Selling Writer (1965), by Dwight V. Swain (1915-1992) and Scene & Structure (1993), by Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997). A prototype is an ideal, a fully developed model. This is how a prototype scene works.
Michael John Klaassen
by Mike Klaassen
A sequel is a passage of writing in which the character reflects on the outcome of a scene. Like a scene, a sequel mimics real life. When something important happens, we tend to respond first with emotion. After our emotions settle down, we try to make sense of our circumstances, reviewing recent events, evaluating how the new situation affects us, formulating alternative courses of action, and planning our next move. After forming a judgment, we make a decision about what to do next. Let’s look at the components of a prototype sequel.
Like a scene, a sequel may need a setup to establish time, place, viewpoint character, and situation. A setup may be long, or it may be as short as a line or two. Often, though, a sequel immediately follows the scene that preceded it, so it needs no setup.
A scene focuses on the character’s attempting to achieve a goal. The subsequent sequel often features that same focal character but not always. For example, a scene in Moby-Dick shows Captain Ahab nailing a gold coin to the ship’s mast as he rallies his crew to help him find the great white whale. The following sequel features Ishmael (the viewpoint character) wondering what he has signed on for. A novel with two viewpoint characters (such as a romance) may alternate characters for scenes and sequels. Novels with multiple viewpoint characters have even more flexibility for making a switch.
The resolution of a scene determines the character’s subsequent emotional state. A scene may end with the character’s achieving his short-term goal. A scene may end with failure or something even worse, as when the character ends up further from his objective than when he started. Also, a scene may end with some combination of success and failure—partial success. The character’s emotional reaction may therefore range anywhere from euphoria to devastation.
A character’s emotional reaction to events often signals the beginning of a new sequel. In fiction as in life, the reaction to an event may include multiple emotions, possibly a chaotic mixture of feelings. The intensity of emotional reaction may range from almost nothing to such an overload that it causes mental paralysis. Our goal as fiction writers is to generate emotion in our readers, so we want scene endings to be significant, often dramatic enough to immobilize our character with emotion, possibly chaotic emotions that force the character to grapple with his feelings.
At some point after a significant event, our emotions subside, and we begin to think intelligently. As stated by Jack M. Bickham in Scene & Structure (1993), “At first this thought may be somewhat haphazard and confused by emotion . . . ,” but sooner or later the character begins to think rationally. Bickham identified three phases in the thought process of sequels: (1) review, (2) analysis, and (3) planning.[i]
The character looks back on the scene and remembers the outcome. For example, after Jack steals a bag of gold and escapes from an ogre, he may replay the scene in his mind as he mentally celebrates his bravery and good fortune. The review phase is likely to employ the fiction-writing mode of recollection. Occasionally the review includes a flashback, where the character relives a scene as if it were happening in real time.
Just as in real life, at some point after a significant incident we switch from reviewing that event to evaluating our new situation and finding the meaning of everything that has happened.[ii] The character might recall his short-term goal and determine how the scene resolution hindered or helped him achieve that goal. For example, after taking a bag of gold from an ogre, Jack may realize that having so much money could draw dangerous attention to him and his mother.
Eventually, the character begins to think ahead about how he can either (1) chart a new course of action to achieve his goal or (2) select a new short-term goal. In real life, we try to make decisions rationally and logically, and so should your character. To make this process believable, especially if the story is approaching a turning point, show the character’s chain of thought.
The character might consider the merits of several options, rank them, and discard some. He may agonize over making a decision, examining the alternatives from all angles and weighing the risks, or he might rush to judgment. The situation may involve equally unsatisfactory options, making the whole process a gut-wrenching dilemma. A character caught on the horns of a dilemma may have an epiphany that shows him the way forward. Once a character whittles his choices down to the best one, he may experience a flashforward that allows him to visualize his path to success.
The character is then able to lay out a plan for struggling forward to achieve his main objective.
All that remains of the sequel is for the character to make a decision about his new course of action. Regardless of how the character gets there, and regardless of how long it took for the character to make his decision (whether it be instantaneous or prolonged), once he decides what to do, the sequel is over. For example, rather than spending his stolen gold, Jack and his mother might decide to keep it a secret until they develop a plan.
The moment the character takes action to achieve his new goal, a new scene begins. Remember, the definition of a scene is a passage of writing in which the character attempts to achieve a goal. The character might take dramatic action to begin a new scene (such as firing a pistol); or the action could be moderate, such as thumbing the safety lever of a handgun to the “off” position; or it may be as subtle as moving his hand closer to his holster.
Mike Klaassen is the author of Third-Person Possessed: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction for 21stCentury Readers, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores. You may "Look Inside" the eBook edition at Amazon.
This article is an excerpt from Third-Person Possessed: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction for 21st Century Readers, by Mike Klaassen. Copyright 2020 Michael John Klaassen. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this article with others.
[i] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 55.
[ii] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 55.