Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Scene and Sequel

Molly's great post on Monday reminded me of a writing concept/technique I find really useful -- when I remember to think of it, that is. Scene and sequel.

The first few times I heard this concept explained at workshops, I didn't get it. (And frankly, I question whether the people presenting the topic got it, either.) The way they explained it, it sounded like: write a great scene, then write a boring scene.

In fact, I've heard writers use concept of scene and sequel to justify dull, narrative-reflection scenes that go nowhere -- claiming those reflection scenes are the sequels. But I think they're misinterpreting what scene/sequel means. It's usually plain lazy, and/or poor storytelling to write a scene where a character merely thinks about what happened in the previous scene.

But writers often do this. I know I have. In weaker romances -- certainly in many contest entries I've judged -- we often see a scene the hero's POV, followed by one in the heroine's POV, where all she does is think about what just happened (or vice versa). So basically, there's one scene where stuff happens, followed by one where nothing happens -- we just get to see it replayed from the other character's POV. "Wow, I couldn't believe when he did that. It made me feel this."

People. This is not what scene and sequel means. I don't think it's what a resting scene means either. You can vary the pacing and still have sh*t happen.

The (brilliant, I think) idea of scene and sequel was first introduced by Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer. (Which, full disclosure, although I do own a copy, I still haven't read. But I like to rant about the ideas in this book as if I have read it. Deal with it.)

On the other hand, I have read this great article.

Crib notes from the article:

The basic scene and sequel structure:
  • Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
  • Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
The magic part of applying this fast-paced storytelling technique is that the decision, at the end of a sequel, gives the character his or her goal for the next scene, so the entire thing cycles, driving a story forward. Magic, right?

To apply this structure to a crafting a scene, the writer needs to understand first, whether it's a scene or a sequel, and then:

- What does my character want / or what disaster/problem does my character have do deal with;
- What's keeping my character from getting what they want / or what choice (hopefully a lesser of two evils choice) does my character have to make; and then
- What happens to throw my character for a loop / or what does my character decide to do so that he/she can move on from the last disaster (and continue to head toward their overall main story goal.)

The problem in application, I think, is people getting lazy with the reaction, dilemma, decision part. Either they make it all reflective narrative, when it could be action and dialogue showing the character reacting, facing a choice, and making a decision. Or -- and I think this is may be a more common problem -- the "scene" scenes don't end in real disasters. So the we read through a scene that ends anti-climatically, or where a problem was already resolved, or the conflict defused, then we have to read through a scene where the character reacts to this not-dramatic-enough event, while gazing at his/her navel, (or worse, looking at the scenery or what secondary characters are up to), and it all gets very dull, very fast. There's not enough to pull the reader along.

I also think it's a slightly more complicated structure to use in books written with two main characters, as romances are... Sometimes one scene can be a scene for the hero and a sequel for the heroine simultaneously (or vice versa). But that's why romance writers have to work really hard to write great books.

I don't pretend to use this scene/sequel structure (or even think about it) all the time. But when I have thought about it before writing a scene, or when diagnosing problems in my work or that of my critique partners, I've found it to be extremely helpful.

In the end, it all comes down to understanding motivation and conflict... but the scene/sequel structure really helps keep you focused on motivation and conflict and to keep the pace moving.


Amy Ruttan said...

I own a copy of Dwight's book too, haven't read it, but I think during the hours I wait in my OB's office for the next 8 months (because she's always on call delivering babies), that I'll be reading all my great reference writing books. I'll start with Dwight first.

Great post!

Molly O'Keefe said...

Wow! Maureen, great post -- I think you are so right. We've let ourselves get lazy about the sequel scenes. I love scene and sequel - it's an excellent firestarter when you're stuck on a scene. Which I always seem to be.

Anonymous said...

Smart. The first time you sent me the link, it blew my mind. It's a great way to assess how our scenes are working, and why they aren't.

One of my other favourite lines, from the JR Ward book Molly raved about. Plotlines are like sharks, they keep moving, or they die.

Love that....

Tracy Belsher said...

Thanks for the breakdown on this - I've seen the terms tossed around before and hadn't quite understood the concept.

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