Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

Hi everyone! We are diving right into the thick of writing technique with a guest post by author Raven Oak, who is joining us to talk about the successful pattern of Scene and Sequel.  This is a must read, especially for those who do not know about this technique. Trust me, your writing will thank you!

Scene and Sequel

ravenWhen I began writing seriously—not the scribbles in a notebook of plots I’d write someday or the half-started, never-finished stories I cranked out, but the “I want to write novels for a living” point in my career—my first completed book felt juvenile. Portions dragged. And those that didn’t, sped through the action without anyone stopping to smell any proverbial roses. So how does one develop solid pacing through a novel while building tension, developing characters, describing setting, and advancing plot lines? The answer is a little trick called Scene and Sequel. Why? Because humans like patterns.

Scene and Sequel is a technique developed by Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. (If you haven’t checked it out, I would strongly suggest doing so as he covers a wide range of simple tricks writers can use to develop better stories.)

Readers pick up a work because they want a powerful and emotional experience. It’s an escape from the drudgery of the real world and a way to live vicariously through others. As a writer, you must create and maintain an illusion strong enough to fool the reader. Pacing helps create and maintain this illusion.

Novels are typically comprised of chapters, which are often made up of scenes. To keep the ebb and flow of a novel going, each scene should then be identified as being a scene or a sequel.

A scene has the following pattern:

  1. Goal—what the character wants. Must be clearly definable
  2. Conflict—series of obstacles that keep the character from the goal
  3. Disaster—makes the character fail to get the goal

And a sequel has the following pattern:

  1. Reaction—emotional follow through of the disaster.
  2. Dilemma—a situation with no good options
  3. Decision—character makes a choice (which sets up the new goal).

18. a christmas carolTo understand how this works, let’s look at A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

 Chapter 1 is a SCENE

  1. Goal—Scrooge wants money and to be left alone.
  2. Conflict—When the charity solicitors and Scrooge’s nephew visit, they stir up feelings in Scrooge and memories of his sister, Fran. As Scrooge arrives home, he sees his old business partner’s (Marley’s) face in the doorknocker, and then later in the pictures in his fireplace mantel. Scrooge tries to dismiss the conflicting emotions/thoughts this stirs up.
  3. Disaster—The disaster is when Marley’s Ghost arrives to warn Scrooge that three ghosts will visit him. Each one has a lesson to teach him. If he doesn’t heed their lessons, Scrooge’s afterlife will be full of pain and misery.
  4. Scenes tend to be full of action and tension that push the plot forward. Remember, every scene you write must further the plot and/or further the character development.

 Chapter 2 is a SEQUEL

  1. Reaction—Scrooge’s initial reaction is to write off Marley’s visit as the result of some bad food. When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives, Scrooge tries to send him away. He claims he doesn’t want or need the lesson, but having no choice, Scrooge accompanies the ghost into the past.
  2. Dilemma—As Scrooge journeys through quite a few joyful and painful memories, he begins to doubt the decisions he’s made. Scrooge faces a dilemma: whether or not to believe himself guilty of bad judgment and humbug, or whether to continue avoiding Christmas, its joy, and his family as he has for many-a-year. Neither are good options, so he picks the option he thinks he can live with.
  3. Decision—Scrooge decides the past is too painful, because it’s made him doubt himself. In anger, he decides to extinguish the light given by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and thus, his own light. At least momentarily.

 What a sequel does is give our character(s) an opportunity for reflection and self-introspection. The decision will lead us into our next scene, where the character(s) develop a new goal. In the case of Scrooge, Chapter 3 (scene) begins with a new goal: Scrooge reacted rashly in extinguishing the light. At the sight of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he decides he will go with him willingly and see what there is to see. And if necessary, think further on his own attitudes and prejudices. He’s not ready for a huge change yet, but change is happening—as change should be happening to your characters as well.

Scenes and sequels should continue to alternate the entire length of the novel, and in doing so, they’ll create a natural flow for both plot progression & character development. Many authors plan or outline the sequence of events using scene & sequel on index cards before writing.

Just about any novel you read will follow this rhythm. It seems simple, but structure usually is. Pick up a book and give it a flip through—I bet it follows the pattern!

 Do you use Scene and Sequel, or is this something you’re planning on testing out? Let us know in the comments!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000447_00014]Guess what? Raven’s Epic Fantasy has just released, so please enjoy this blurb, and if you like, add it to your Goodreads List, or snag a copy from Amazon.

Her name was Adelei, a master in her field, one of the feared Order of Amaska. Those who were a danger to the Little Dozen Kingdoms wound up dead by her hand. The Order sends her deep into the Kingdom of Alexander, away from her home in Sadai, and into the hands of the Order’s enemy.

The job is nothing short of a suicide mission, one serving no king, no god, and certainly not Justice. With no holy order to protect her, she tumbles dagger-first into the Boahim Senate’s political schemes and finds that magic is very much alive and well in the Little Dozen Kingdoms.

While fighting to unravel the betrayal surrounding the royal family of Alexander, she finds her entire past is a lie, right down to those she called family. They say the truth depends on which side of the sword one stands. But they never said what to do when all the swords are pointing at you. 

Want more Raven? Catch her on Twitter, Facebook or visit her at her website!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

This entry was posted in Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

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  3. Victor T. Cypert says:

    Quite wonderful that you made this post.

    I’m looking at my own work and I realize that this patterning–Scene & Sequel–will improve the flow drastically.

    I can see why it’s tempting to think that the pattern could work regardless of how it’s employed, but that’s not going to do the job. Characters need to make their choice in the Decision phase–that’s where the character development really happens, where thesis and antithesis meet.

    I have so much rewriting to do.

  4. Ruth Dell says:

    Thank you for an excellent post.

    Should a sequel always follow its scene immediately? Can I write, for example, a second scene set in another location in another POV, before writing the sequel to the first scene?

    • Alora Dillon says:

      Hi Ruth,

      I’ve just finished devouring the Dwight V. Swain book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. And the poor little thing is doused in yellow highlights and tabs. 🙂

      I will give you some info Dwight gives:

      ~~~ SEQUEL is a unit of transition that links two scenes, like the couplers between two railroad cars. It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.

      Sequel is the decision-making area; the bridge from one scene to another.

      A SCENE, remember, is a unit of conflict. Your reader reads it because he likes to live through a struggle with your character… battle opposition… find an answer to the implied question of who wins and who loses.

      But sooner or later, every battle ends: on a hook, a question, a disaster.

      Eagerly, your reader reads on. He seeks that happy moment when the story-forces, once again, come into conflict.
      Here, you must be very, very wary. For CONFLICT for conflict’s sake isn’t enough.

      WHY?

      Because it’s meaningless.

      That is, it bears no clear cut CAUSE-EFFECT relationship to what’s gone on before. It’s not the result of, or reaction to, the preceding struggles.

      Sequel, implicitly and/or explicitly, reveals how your focal character chooses his new course of action. It’s a character’s chain of Logic for the reader.

      The sequel is the Aftermath – the state of affairs and state of mind that shapes your character’s behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down. ~~~

      So basically, yes, a scene should be followed by a sequel to at least allow the reader a chance to understand the character’s way of thinking.

      Again, my understanding is that sequel can take place anywhere. So, if you have just come out of a scene that ended in disaster, most likely, your character is going to go off to a new place to lick his wounds, think about what just happened and what course of action must he take.

      This sets the next scene up… because we KNOW that whatever the character chooses, they are going to be met with conflict in the next scene that will most likely end in disaster, a question or a hook… to which, a sequel follows so that the character can say… “okay… that didn’t work. What should I do now?” “Maybe I should do this”… and then here comes another scene. Maybe this time he gets a small victory only to be met with another conflict that will end in disaster.

      And so on and so on.

      Sequel doesn’t have to change settings to take place. Your character can “think” in the same place as where the disaster took place. Or, he can go off and think.

      Whatever you choose, sequel always follows a scene.

      The key difference between the Scene and Sequel is the outcome. Does it promote conflict that ends in disaster? That would be a Scene. Does it promote thought and decision because of a disaster? That would be a Sequel.

      Chapter 4 explains it well. The only issue I have with the book is the writing style. It was written in the 60’s, so the English is precise and formal, at times. But, the content is truly invaluable.

      I believe that the Motivation-Reaction-Unit that makes up all Scenes and Sequels is the most valuable information of all. Scenes and Sequels are made up of these micro units. Regardless if your character is battling or contemplating, there is always an External force (motivation) that causes a character to act (reaction).

      The author talks about how to write each one sentence by sentence… then go back and beef it up if you feel the need. But no matter what, your Scene and Sequels move at a pace of Motivation-Reaction-Motivation-Reaction… so forth and so on until you’ve reached a disaster (Scene) or a reactive decision (Sequel).

      Another thing to point out… Sequels, just like a Scene, are their own division of an act in a play, movie or novel during which the action takes place in a single place without a break in time.

      So, it’s easy to get the Scene and the Sequel confused when they both are basically the same type of UNIT, only, they have different outcomes.

      If you want to relabel a Scene and Sequel, do so by saying…

      Unit 1: (Goal+Conflict+Disaster)
      Unit 2: (Reaction+Choices+Decision)
      Unit 3: (Goal+Conflict+Disaster)
      Unit 4: (Reaction+Choices+Decision)
      Unit 5: (Goal+Conflict+Disaster) and so forth and so on…

      The word “SEQUEL” just helps keep the writer from being confused that it actually is a UNIT very similar to a Scene. Again, it’s all about what does that UNIT accomplish which ultimately defines it as either a scene or a sequel.

      WOW… this was long. I really hope this helped 🙂

      Alora Dillon

    • Adam Mann says:

      I think here is another insight as you plot your scenes in reaction to what Alora says:

      Your character has to accomplish some goals. Otherwise he would be stuck fighting on the same bear hunt for the whole book. Think of it as a series of loops and lumps. So our hero is hunting a bear, and as he reaches the bear’s cave, the bear sneaks up on him, wounds him, causes him to topple of a ledge and lose his weapons and knocks him out. End scene. The hero regains consciousness feeling wounded and hopeless. He binds his wounds, checks his inventory and rests. He faces a dilemma. He can either hunt the bear still armed only by his wits, so the bear will likely kill him and eat him. Or face starvation, exile from his tribe, and eternal shame for failing to kill the bear. He decides to hunt the bear. End Sequel. New Scene. Now here’s where it gets tricky. This is what I call a loop because you have literally come full circle to face the bear again. If the scene loops again readers will lose interest, because no one wants to here about the stupid bear anymore. Kill the bear already. Yes, its true, many fiction writers do use this over and over again. Tell me I am wrong and that you haven’t encountered a “kill the bear already” moment while reading your favorite fantasy series. True you can reorganize the goal to say “the hero strives to return home with honor by killing the bear” So guess what, the hero kills the bear so we can move on to a lump. And we didn’t just follow the hero for 2 chapters to watch him run home and not kill the bear. He wouldn’t be a hero, he would be a loser and a quitter. So throw him a bone, the hero gets a small win and a small disaster. He kills the bear but he is too tired to hike home. So he builds a fire, cooks the bear meat, splints his leg, and dilemma: builds a signal fire or raft decision: build raft, and he travels home. But im not going to write a whole chapter on raft building and bear eating. I’m going to gloss over that boring swill and bring our hero home. I think that should be called GHOSTING a sequel or a scene. Because I GHOSTED the decision to build a raft, and I GHOSTED the journey home. Now I can switch point of views and pickup his homecoming from another perspective. Our hero overcame a great trial just to kill the bear. We don’t need to analyze his mental battle to overcome his exhaustion. This isn’t a survival book. So cut to his best friends POV where his friends and family all gathered around a fire dancing and having fun, and the hero slumps in dragging his bear kill, and he collapse near death from infection and blood loss. THAT to me is good writing and it incorporates to the joining of two POVs. The best friends goal was to have a good dance at the bonfire, his conflicts were petty, a girl turned him down for a dance, the village idiot kept annoying him. Suddenly, his best bud is in front of him facing death… and they get to react together. Now, to further my point, im not going to create a true dilemma, the next goal is to obviously see the hero well again and we are going to let that succeed in the end. Now I have to find a new scene and goal for the POVs.
      In summary, repeated failure is actually an ultimate failure, which is just as boring as ultimate success. If you feel yourself going down an forced road, switch POVs and let them pull the story in a new direction. This makes sense. The world doesn’t revolve around your hero. It just needs him badly.

      We want our hero to have some success, but we want a trial. I don’t think the scene/sequel thing explains that very well.

      Here’s a simple story example of success and failure in a great but simple video game story:

      Link unlocks the temple of time only to have Ganondorf steal the triforce. Success: Link unlocks temple. Failure: Lack of foresight allows Ganondorf to steal triforce. Reaction: Link is stunned that he is now 7 years older Dilemma: Link can either put the Sword back and go live his life as a kid after which ganondorf will ruin everything and he will die or he can make a near futile effort to kill Ganondorf and take the triforce back but he will not enjoy his childhood. Decision: he chooses to fight.

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  6. Rebekah says:

    Hello, thanks for sharing this handy technique. I am dusting off my writer’s hat after taking an unplanned 3-year hiatus from creative writing due to work etc., and though it can be depressing to be so rusty while memories of being fine-tuned lurk in my mind, I think this scene-sequel sequence will definitely be useful in plotting and planning my novel.

    I had one question though: shouldn’t there be scenes where the character succeeds, even if only momentarily? I’d think that a story full of character failure would get boring and frustrating to read after a while.

    So if the scene then goes goal-conflict-success, what is a good way to structure the sequel? Could reaction-dilemma-decision still work, for example the success being a Pyrrhic victory or revealed to be unhelpful to the ultimate story goal? And is it “wrong” or bad writing to let a character have a total, clear success without anything tarnishing it, as long as something less-awesome happens soon after?

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this. Again, thanks for a wonderful technique that I will adopt immediately.

    • Raven Oak says:

      Small successes are necessary, yes, but with obstacles that prevent the character from obtaining their major goal.
      Keep in mind that when we talk about a character’s goal, we don’t mean something like, “Get a banana for breakfast,” unless the character is starving and that’s a major task. Goals should be fairly major and important. Life changing even.

      Let’s say we have “Sue” who wants to get a raise at work. That’s her goal. She goes into work this morning and has psyched herself up. She has internal conflict on whether she’s going to lose her job being so forward, but decides to risk it. She’s ready to ask…no, demand a raise.
      When she sits down before her boss, the boss is crying. The company is being sold and sadly, everyone is losing their jobs. Including Sue.
      This is disaster. Or it feels like it at the time. Her reaction is outrage. How could the board do this? Dilemma–now what? She needs this job. In her ability to react and contemplate, she decides to go before the board and raise heck. (New goal).
      Let’s say as Sue goes through these scenes, her standing up to the board convinces them that she’s worth keeping. They hire her to a new company they’re starting and she gets a promotion AND a raise. There’s your success.
      In the end, sure, she gets her grand success. She has smaller ones that lead through the book, but overall, plot = events full of conflict. Conflict = things standing in the way of what your character wants.

      If you have a chapter where your character has a major goal and succeeds at it easily, it’s boring. People typically don’t read stories where on page 1, the girl sets out to get the guy, and on page 5, she wins him, then the rest of the book is their love story about how perfect everything is.

      Think of Disney’s Cinderella. Everything stood in her way to prevent her from going to the ball. Even when she gets there, things transpire against her (time). Only in the end does she get her happily ever after (and her goal). Only after hardship after hardship. That conflict is what makes the happily ever after so sweet and awesome–because we watched her crawl through heck to get/earn it.

      Until the end, something should always tarnish the winnings a bit. Otherwise, we have no conflict in that scene. No conflict = no plot.

      • S. J. Dunn says:

        I sometimes use the Rule of Threes in a scene, i.e., I try to find/create three obstacles to the character’s goal in each scene. Could be interior or character-related (character has to overcome a personal fear or defect), or external (the other character is an obstacle, and/or the weather or a car breakdown, or not being able to find something needed for success, etc….the options are infinite.)

        The challenge is to make the obstacles organic in the scene and story and, if possible, a bit surprising but still believable, especially in the way the characters behave. I think a story can become boring if the obstacles are way too obvious or clichéd or if the characters behave ‘out of character.’

        However, the obstacles can provide opportunities for the author to reveal more about the characters or deepen an existing trait, sometimes hinted at earlier in the story.

        The interesting thing about the scene and sequel pattern, in my opinion, is that for some, it’s innate and just needs refinement, i.e., some people are born storytellers and simply need to know about the pattern to strengthen what’s already there inside of them. For others, studying the pattern and practising it can be very helpful. Writing short stories is a great way to practice the pattern.

      • Rebekah says:

        Thanks for the detailed reply, and the excellent example!

        I did not mean to imply that a character should have major successes early on, or that they should succeed easily; that would be incredibly boring to read (and to write, really. What writer doesn’t like to torture their characters a little? 😀 ). I apologize for lack of clarity in my wording. The point I was trying to make was that it seems prudent to include small, hard-one victories every once in a while, and then perhaps follow them up with new unforeseen problems that arise from attaining those small victories.

        But I think I am still a little confused about the theory of scene goal: should this goal be an overarching, story-wide goal, or a scene-specific goal that contributes to the overarching goal?

        • Raven Oak says:

          Every story should have overarching goal(s). I aim for both plot arcs and character arcs.

          But in the case of S&S, the goal is a scene goal. It will tie into the overarching goal (if it doesn’t, the scene may not be needed and should probably be revised or cut), but it should also stand on its own.

          Look at Scrooge again. His 1st goal is to have wealth (& to be left alone). As he goes through each scene, his goals change and morph. At the end, he learns that wealth doesn’t have to be monetary in nature. Friends and family can be a source of wealth. Giving to others less fortunate can be wealth, etc.
          This major arc ties through every smaller scene goal.

          Does that help?

          • Rebekah says:

            Hello,

            Yes, that does help. Thanks for clarifying! I have a lot to learn and re-learn in creative writing. Some of my older stories had something of an S&S structure, but this is the first time I’ve seen the technique broken down and am trying to wrap the intellectual side of my brain around the theory and my creative mind around the application. So thanks again for spelling out the process.

            And thank you for your patience in dialoguing with me and my confusion about the hows and whys involved. Obviously I need to get hold of those books from Bickman and Swain.

            S.J. Dunn: Thanks for your insight on the Rule of 3! I can definitely see ways to apply that in my current work in progress.

    • J.R. Deveraux says:

      Hi Rebekah,

      if you really do want to let your characters experience success without sacrificing conflict and tension, make their success = failure for other characters. My go-to example is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. If you’re not familiar with it, each main character wants the same object – but for different reasons. And the stakes for each character are reasonably high should they fail. Each character succeeds throughout the movie at one time or another, which means the other characters fail – and subsequently plot ways to outwit the successful character, keeping tension and conflict high. This is also a great film for understanding character goal and motivation and the powerful stories that can result from keeping those things both clear and consistent throughout a narrative.

      Another example is Into the Woods. I just saw the film version, and I’m not so wild about the pacing, BUT it demonstrates how characters succeeding = other characters’ failure = conflict and tension. The baker and his wife need certain objects to break a curse on a tight schedule. Those objects, unfortunately for them, belong to other characters, who need them for their own wishes and goals to come true, and won’t part with them easily. This also has an example of your grand success: but the movie throws a wrench into that when z crises occurs in the final act. Several characters realize that achieving their goals did not make them happy, or blinded them to what actually mattered most, and so they make new goals, which are threatened by the crises.

      Hope this helps a bit. Good luck with your WIP!

      • Raven Oak says:

        Also excellent examples!
        And Rebekah, no problem on the helping. That’s what we’re all here to do–help each other be better writers. 🙂

        • Rebekah says:

          JR Deveraux: I will definitely have to watch those movies. Thanks for the suggestions!

          Raven Oak: Thanks again! I appreciate you and everyone else taking the time to help out a confused newbie. I am starting to realize that what I thought I knew about creative writing is only a small part, and there is so much more to learn. It should be fun learning and applying. 🙂

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  10. Julie Musil says:

    You know, I’ve heard about Scene and Sequel but I’ve never seen it described this well. Thanks so much! I just dove back in to revisions yesterday after a loooong holiday break. I’ll keep this in mind.

  11. Jim Traylor says:

    What a great article, Raven. Scene and Sequel was a real eye opener for me. This has moved me one step closer to writing the kind of novel I have only dreamed about so far. And thanks for using “A Christmas Carol” as your example. The scene and sequel progress is very easy to follow in that story.

    • Raven Oak says:

      I spent some time trying to think of a story that most people would be familiar with. I figure very few writers haven’t read or seen “A Christmas Carol” at some point in their lives.

  12. Jeanie says:

    SJ Dunn, the Bickham book is Scene and Structure, and it is a great reference – part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series published by Writers Digest Books.

  13. Debra L. Butterfield says:

    I use scene and sequel, and look for it in manuscripts I edit. I learned this technique from Jack Bickham’s book. The three points of each help me keep my writing focused and strong.

  14. :Donna Marie says:

    I hadn’t yet heard of the “sequel” part of the process and am very glad to hear of it now! I have no idea if it’s mentioned in the stack of books on craft that I’ve barely touched, except for a few, but did put Swain’s book on my wish list 🙂 Thanks for an excellent article, Raven! 😀

  15. Thank you Raven for a wonderful description of Scene and Sequel. It was my goal to use this method in writing my WIP. Now I need to go back through and see if I achieved what I set out to do. Ah, it’s never easy being a newbie. But I’m getting there! 🙂

    • Raven Oak says:

      You’re welcome!
      I’m going through my current WIP myself checking that I’ve tightened the tension in the right places with this. Pretty handy technique!

  16. This is very timely, because I am making a list of writing books to focus on for the year, and Dwight’s book is one I haven’t read and yet have heard much good about. I could definitely use some brushing up on S & S as well – great post and breakdown. Thanks for stopping in!

    • Raven Oak says:

      No problem! It was a pleasure.
      This is one of those books that no matter how much or little experience one has as a writer, it has something for everyone.

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  18. Southpaw HR Sinclair says:

    Thanks for detailing it in your examples!

  19. Melinda Jane Harrison says:

    I use scene and sequel all the time. Dwight Swain’s book is wonderful and I taught myself to write by that. Most of my chapters begin with sequel and then go to scene and so forth.

    Wonderful post.

    • Raven Oak says:

      Thanks! This book is amazingly helpful!
      I discovered it only recently, though I’d been instinctively doing the technique. It was eye-opening to see how many books flow with it.

  20. S. J. Dunn says:

    I remember when I was first learning how to write fiction, I came across a book called “Scene and Sequel.” I think Bickham wrote it.

    Reading that book gave me my Eureka moment…I think I understood STORY at that moment. What a joyful feeling…difficult to describe. After that, structuring my work became much easier.

    I’d like to butt in a bit on the post, and add that not all novels are structured with scene and sequel as obviously as blue and white towels alternating on a clothesline. Your sequels (or reflections as someone else calls them) can be interspersed within a scene, or delayed to allow another scene to take place, but if you don’t have sequels, the reader will be extremely dissatisfied with the story and probably won’t finish it.

    Also, many people don’t realize that sequels are a wonderful tool for pacing your novel: things are moving too quickly? Lengthen the sequel. You want to speed things up? Make the sequel short.

    If you decide you need a longer sequel, don’t put everything into the character’s interior monologue…that can wear thin very quickly. Either give the character something meaningful to do or you can even use a conversation as a sequel.

    I suspect that natural-born storytellers have an innate sense of scene and sequel, but putting a label on that sense and learning more about scene and sequel will certainly improve your stories.

    Great post!

    • Raven Oak says:

      Ah, thanks for the reminder about the different ways to weave scene & sequel. I think Neil Gaiman does a great job at doing what you suggest (sequels within scenes as well as alternating the length of sequels to control pacing), especially in his short stories.
      I could write for days on this topic and bore everyone to tears, but it’s a great technique, especially for those who are struggling with pacing or ensuring that every scene drives plot and/or character development. 🙂

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