Writing Craft: Scene and Sequel

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There's an old Don Henley song called The Heart of the Matter. The talented Mr. Henley, in his hiatus from The Eagles back in the 1990's, sang about trying to "get down to the heart of the matter," but his will weakens and his thoughts scatter. Unfortunately, this scenario is repeated each day when writers attempt and fail in their efforts to become successful novelists.

Why do they fail? One reason may be because they have not mastered the technique of writing scene and sequel, the driving force that powers a novel from beginning to end, or, defined in its simplest term, dramatic structure.

According to the late Jack M. Bickham, guiding light behind the University of Oklahoma's Creative Writing program and author of Writing Novels That Sell, a "gut-level understanding of scene and sequel is the single most crucial factor in becoming a successful novelist." He goes on to say: " . . . for me, the heart of the matter: [is] dramatic structure."

Scene & Sequel Defined

So what is scene and sequel (dramatic structure, storytelling structure, or whatever you wish to call it)? It is the technique of rendering a life-like reading experience for the person holding your book. By life-like, I mean that the story is told moment by moment with no summary, from a viewpoint, lived now, with actions that have results. Without this life-like reading experience, there is no forward motion, no excitement, in your book which means that no one will want to read your book.

Oh, so if we wish to create an exciting novel then we simply tell everything that happens, with no summary, so that everything becomes a scene? Wrong! If everything were a scene, books would be a gazillion pages long. In real life, we summarize, so, in a novel, we also summarize some things. That is the sequel part of dramatic structure.

Thus, we can refine our definition of scene and sequel by saying that it is a clearly-defined structure that develops a novel through a sequence of stimulus and response transactions that begin with page one and conclude with "the end."

The SCENE is the way the action is developed between the characters -- moment by moment with nothing left out or summarized.

The SEQUEL is the characters' reaction to what has happened.

Scene = goal, conflict, disaster

The scene starts with a character stating clearly what he wants. This is the GOAL that the protagonist wants to achieve. In the scene, the writer develops the CONFLICT that prevents the character from achieving that goal, then shows that DISASTER strikes as a result of thwarted goal achievement.

The SCENE QUESTION, arising from the scene goal, tells the readers what to worry about so they'll keep reading to find the answer. You should answer the scene question disastrously so as to keep the reader hooked.

Scene = goal, conflict, disaster

For example, let's say the scene starts with John Smith (viewpoint character) stating: "I must get you to the hospital, Mary, before the baby comes!" (The action is being lived now.) This is his goal: get his pregnant wife to the hospital before the baby comes. The scene question is: Will John get his wife to the hospital before the baby comes?

The conflict is that which prevents him from achieving his goal: the weather, the traffic, the other drivers, his rattletrap car, his paranoid fear of driving in the rain, his nervousness, his wife's thrashing about, her screams of terror, etc. And of course the disaster is that he does not get to the hospital in time. (The action has results.)

Play the scene out, moment by moment, telling about the slippery roads, the blinding rain, the car fish-tailing when he hit the brakes too hard, the other drivers' speeding, etc.

Sequel = reaction, dilemma, decision

The SEQUEL (reaction) is the character's REACTION to what has happened. That reaction embroils the character in a DILEMMA based on the way the scene question was answered, forces him to make a DECISION which leads him to a new ACTION with a new goal which of course becomes the next scene. In this manner, scenes and sequels are like dominoes standing next to each other, one falling tile gives way to the next and the next until the end is reached.

Sequel = reaction, dilemma, decision

With our John Smith above, after the scene question is answered disastrously, John realizes he must deliver the baby and reaction sets in (the sequel). John goes through the emotional REACTION of knowing he must do this (perhaps he faints at the sight of blood? or his first wife died in childbirth? more conflict), the physical reaction of clammy hands, racing heartbeat, the knot in his stomach.

On the heels of the reaction, John is faced with a DILEMMA or quandary. Does he attempt the delivery? Does he flag down someone to help? Does he run away from the trauma? Does he become catatonic and contemplate his toes? The dilemma forces him to make a DECISION. What is he going to do? The character weighs all the options and within the scope of the character's personality, makes a decision that leads him to take action, and of course, this action leads to a new scene where you go through the process again.

Takeaway Truth

If a failure to understand scene and sequel is holding you back, then please read and study some of the excellent books on the subject, many published by Writer's Digest Books. I strongly recommend Jack Bickham's books.

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