Scenes and sequels 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, scenes and sequels would be the pistons powering the drive shaft. Writers striving to turbocharge their writing might want to fine-tune their use of scenes and sequels.
Let’s put plot structure in context. On a micro level, plot consists of action and reaction. On a macro level, plot has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. But plot also has a midlevel structure: scenes and sequels.
A 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 structure of scenes and sequels 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.
(This article was first published on Helium.com in 2007 and revised in 2016)
Copyright 2007 and 2016 Michael John Klaassen
All rights reserved
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