by Mike Klaassen

Has the following ever happened to you? After writing a passage of fiction, you know something is missing, but you can't quite put your finger on it. I suspect every writer has that experience sometimes. Apparently, even Ernest Hemingway struggled with this problem, as evidenced by his statement that "The first draft of anything is shit."

Whether or not you appreciate Hemingway's choice of words, the challenge remains of fixing an inadequate passage of writing—or even a whole manuscript. What can you do about a passage of fiction that doesn't work? You have a number of choices:

  • Read and reread the passage, searching for the problem
  • Hope for inspiration
  • Put the writing away for a while and take a fresh look later
  • Get someone else to critique the passage
  • Apply a troubleshooting technique

Each of these alternatives has its advantages and disadvantages, but applying a troubleshooting technique has more benefits than the others. A troubleshooting technique relies on more than hope, may be performed immediately, and doesn't depend on other people to solve the problem.

There are probably as many different troubleshooting techniques as there are writers, but one stands out as consistently giving good results. In fact, I believe this technique may be the single most effective troubleshooting technique that a writer can apply to fiction.

This technique is also an absolute cure for writer's block. Whatever piece of fiction you find yourself stuck on, use this technique and you will be back to writing in no time. The power to prevent or unlock writer's block puts you, the author, in charge and not subject to the whims of inspiration.

The technique I'm referring to is scene-and-sequel analysis. As the name implies, scene-and-sequel analysis is a detailed study of the scenes and sequels in a manuscript. Just as a surgeon must have a thorough knowledge of human anatomy before slicing into someone, scene-and-sequel analysis requires a thorough understanding of the structure of scenes and sequels. Fortunately, after reading the first few chapters of [Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction], you now have that knowledge.

For the purposes of troubleshooting, whether or not you consciously wrote scenes and sequels when you drafted the manuscript is irrelevant. If your manuscript includes a character trying to accomplish a goal (and I hope it does), then you have at least one scene. If your manuscript includes at least one passage in which a character has a reflective response to success or failure (and I hope it does), then your writing includes at least one sequel. More than likely, your manuscript includes many scenes and sequels, even if you didn't have that concept in mind when you wrote them.

Let's put scene-and-sequel analysis in perspective before we move on. Scene-and-sequel analysis is meant to be a problem-solving tool, a technique for exploring a passage of writing in order to see passages that could be improved—not a straightjacket for turning writers into slaves of a technique or style. Most likely, your manuscript already includes scenes and sequels, but it probably also includes fragments of scenes and sequels, passages that resemble neither scenes nor sequels, and passages that include elements of both scenes and sequels. All of this is okay, if the writing works acceptably to advance the story. You as the writer decide how much your final product does or does not resemble fully developed scenes and sequels—or something else.

I've made a couple of assumptions regarding your writing, just as I do with my own.

  • You are troubleshooting only the passages of writing that you think need improvement.
  • Almost any passage of writing can be improved.

Flexibility is a key to writing scenes and sequels that create an emotional roller coaster with ups, downs, twists, and turns. To meet the needs of the story, scenes and sequels (and their various components) may be lengthened, shortened, skipped, or reorganized. As [Jack M.] Bickham explained, scenes and sequels may be "devilishly difficult"[1] to recognize in published novels precisely because their authors tailored their use to fit the needs of the story. 

Unless you have consciously constructed your manuscript with fully developed scenes and sequels, they may be a challenge to identify. I intentionally write scenes and sequels, but the casual reader of my stories probably wouldn't notice that. Confession: in my final draft, I sometimes have to look closely to identify where a scene ends and another scene or a sequel begins, but that's the way it should be.

As I mentioned earlier, your manuscript probably consists of a mixture of scenes, sequels, transitions, fragments of scenes and sequels, passages that don't resemble either scenes or sequels, and passages that resemble both scenes and sequels. That's okay if your manuscript works the way you want it to, but let's assume you need to improve your writing.

Let's do some troubleshooting. From your own manuscript, select a passage of writing at least several pages long that needs improvement. Alternatively, just select the passage of fiction you are currently writing. 

The first step in troubleshooting a passage of writing is to determine whether it is a scene, a sequel, or something else. What's the easiest way to recognize scenes and sequels? Let's review the definition of each word. A scene is a passage of writing in which a character attempts to achieve a goal. A sequel is a character's reflective reaction to the ending of a scene.

Using these bare-bones definitions, see if your character is trying to accomplish a goal. If so, then it's a scene. If your character is licking his wounds after defeat or patting himself on the back after a victory, then your passage is a sequel. If your character isn't trying to accomplish a goal and he isn't reflecting on failure or success, then the passage is neither a scene nor a sequel.

Scene-and-sequel analysis can be a lot like unraveling a tangled fishing line: you may have to coax each strand free before you achieve real progress. For example, the character's goal may not be stated in the scene. Here's a tip: if the character in a passage is trying to accomplish something, you may assume that the character's goal is to accomplish that something. Scene goals are frequently implied or assumed rather than stated.

Recognizing the beginning and ending of scenes and sequels can be challenging. Scenes and sequels may be interrupted by a sudden change in the story. For example, partway through a scene or sequel, a man holding a gun enters the room. The scene or sequel ends immediately, creating a fragment or a truncated scene or sequel, and a new scene begins, probably with the character adopting a new goal (such as to avoid being shot).
What if you determine that your passage is a scene? The next step is to compare it to the prototype scene. You will find a Prototype-Scene Analysis worksheet below. Carefully dissect your scene to identify the various components of a prototype scene and record them on a copy of the worksheet. Note any prototype components missing from your scene, but also note any extra elements in your scene that do not correspond to the components of the prototype.



Manuscript: Title___________________ Chapter #____Page # ___ Line #___


  • Place
  • Time
  • Character
  • Point of View
  • Character's Situation
  • Crucible











Once you have completed this task, consider whether adding missing components to your scene would improve it. For example, does the character's goal involve enough stakes that matter to the character and the reader? Does the character attempt to achieve his goal three times? Does the scene need additional (or stronger) elements of resistance?

If your passage includes more parts than are named on the prototype worksheet, consider whether those parts should be deleted or how they could be transformed to fit the prototype. Study each part of your scene. How could it be improved? Should it be lengthened, shortened, or deleted? This is an appropriate time to brainstorm, to release your inner child, and to put yourself in the mind of your character and let your creative juices flow.

What if you determine that your passage is a sequel? Compare the passage from your manuscript to a copy of the Prototype-Sequel Analysis worksheet shown below. Note any missing parts and any extra parts. Will making your sequel more like the prototype improve it? Put yourself in the consciousness of your character and give your imagination free rein.



Manuscript: Title___________________ Chapter #____Page # ___ Line #___


  • Place
  • Time
  • Character
  • Point of View
  • Character's Situation
  • Crucible







You may have written a passage that is neither a scene nor a sequel. How is that possible? If your passage doesn't have a character attempting to achieve a goal or a character reflecting on success or failure, then it is something else. That something else could be a passage of narration, description, a transition, a chunk of dialogue, or a character mentally wandering through whatever is on his mind.

Okay, so you have determined that your passage is neither a scene nor a sequel. What troubleshooting technique could you apply? If your passage is neither a scene nor a sequel, then nothing much happens in it. That probably explains why it doesn't work. You have several choices: (1) convert the passage to a scene, (2) convert the passage to a sequel, or (3) reevaluate the purpose of the passage and then decide whether or not to keep it.

To convert a passage to a scene, give the character a goal, have him attempt to achieve it, and frustrate his attempts with resistance. Then work toward making the scene more like the prototype scene. Alternatively, show the character reflecting on failure or success, then build a sequel, using the prototype as a guide. If the passage doesn't convert to either a scene or a sequel, ask yourself why it needs to be in your manuscript, then proceed from there.

Suppose the passage includes elements of both scenes and sequels. Carefully review your passage and consider its purpose. Would the passage be better if the character was trying to achieve a goal or reflecting upon success or failure? What would happen if the passage was restructured to be more like a scene or more like a sequel? Should the passage be split into a fully developed scene and a fully developed sequel?

Fragments are snippets of writing that could be part of a scene or a sequel or anything else. Fragments may be useful in a variety of circumstances, but consider what would happen if you expanded a fragment into a full scene or sequel or simply deleted it.

Although a sequel is defined as what comes after a scene, a sequel may be included without portraying the scene it follows. That's right: a sequel can show the character reacting to a scene that wasn't written. Why would you do this? To vary the pace or to explore the why of an event or its emotional aspect, as opposed to the event itself. Since sequels are by definition reflective, they make great vehicles for sharing information. At any point in a story where new information needs to be shared, consider structuring that passage as a sequel.

Likewise, scenes may follow one another without having sequels between them. If a character can move from one scene to another without bridging them with a sequel, so be it. Fast-paced fiction, such as thrillers, frequently present one scene after another with few breaks between them.

A passage that includes elements of both scenes and sequels may be a problem-solving passage. If so, consider whether the passage would be more effective if structured more like a scene or more like a sequel. Also ask yourself if some additional elements of scenes and sequels could improve your problem-solving passage.

The purpose of scene-and-sequel analysis is to improve a passage of writing, not to impose a requirement that each passage of writing be structured like a prototype scene or sequel. If the analysis helped you improve the passage, it worked. Declare victory and move on.

Do yourself a favor and give scene-and-sequel analysis a try. You'll know it works when your writing becomes more effective. 

This article is an excerpt from Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction by Mike Klaassen. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

[1] Bickham, Scene & Structure, 72.